Trinidad and Tobago: unlawful police killings must not go unpunished

Amnesty International today (26 April) criticised Trinidad and Tobago’s authorities for failing to fully investigate unlawful police killings and deaths in custody.

In its report, ‘Trinidad & Tobago: End police immunity for unlawful killings and deaths in custody’, Amnesty concludes that little has been done to clarify the circumstances surrounding deaths in police custody or to bring those responsible to justice. The organisation calls for structural reforms within Trinidad and Tobago’s police force that would incorporate a human-rights-based approach to policing.

This Code of Conduct should create a transparent chain of command and ensure criminal prosecutions for human rights violations, which includes the deprivation of life by unlawful lethal force, says Amnesty.

Between 2003 and 2005, 35 people have died after being shot by police or while in police custody in Trinidad and Tobago. Since then only one police officer – Constable Dave Burnett in March 2006 – has been convicted of murdering a civilian while on duty.

The scarcity of information regarding investigations into any other reported cases shows the authorities’ lack of commitment to bring those responsible to account, says the report.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

“Using lethal force without measuring the terrible consequences it has on people and their families is no effective way to respond to a rise in crime.

“A Code of Conduct based on human rights, which holds individual officers accountable for their actions, might have saved the lives of the 35 people killed by police since 2003. It would certainly help prevent unlawful killings from happening in the future.”

The crime rate in Trinidad and Tobago is one of the highest in the Caribbean. Murders and kidnappings have been on the increase in recent years. In response, there have been calls for tougher police measures.

Recent measures to tackle street crime and improve police performance have done little to improve the situation.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Police Civilian Authority (PCA), a civilian oversight body set up in 1993 to monitor the investigation of complaints by the Police Complaints Division, received 12,919 complaints between 1999 and 2004. Only 20 per cent of these cases were investigated.

Amnesty International hopes that the recently passed Police Complaints Authority Act will enhance its ability to conduct independent investigations and that its recommendations will be made binding.

Background information

On 13 October 2004, 17 year old Sherman Monsegue was shot and killed by a police officer. Sherman was in the street with a friend when police arrived and opened fire while the two ran off. Sherman died in hospital. According to the police, Sherman opened fire first. This was denied by a number of witnesses.

A police investigation was opened almost a year after Sherman’s death. Police officers called as witnesses have so far failed to appear. According to reports, the police officers are still on active duty in the area. Attorneys representing the family have not been given access to all relevant documentation, including witness statements. The inquest was due to resume yesterday.

In January 2006 Amnesty International wrote to the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago setting out its concerns about allegations of human rights violations involving police officers and requesting information about some of the cases included in the report. No response has been received so far.

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