November 29, 2006
The shooting to death of wanted men by the Police seems to be increasing again. The most egregious episode this year was the slaughter of the suspected Berbice bank robbers in the Black Bush Polder backlands in mid-August and in which there were no survivors. But there have been several other isolated police killings at Enterprise, Vreed-en-Hoop, Stabroek, Victoria, Wortmanville, Agricola and Bachelor's Adventure.
The President poured praises on the Police and Defence Forces and the Minister of Home Affairs described the carnage as "a very, very important victory." Other citizens were cautious, expressing disquiet not out of sympathy for the alleged criminals but out of the need to gain information on the organisation behind the crimes, the desire for due process and, not least, respect for human life.
The right to life is the most elemental of all fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, after all. Every person in Guyana has a right to life and both the state and society have a public interest in the life of every citizen. Whenever the life of anyone is taken unnaturally, it becomes a public duty and a matter of public interest to determine the circumstances and causes of death.
Justice Cecil Kennard, Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority, recently told this newspaper that he had recommended that inquests should be held in 15 police killings over the past two years but none was held. So far for this year, he had received reports for seven unlawful police killings and was still awaiting statements in two other cases. Justice Carl Singh, Acting Chancellor of the Judiciary, acknowledged that there was a massive amount of outstanding coroner's inquests, some dating back decades to 1985.
There should be no need for either Justice Kennard or Justice Singh to become involved in these matters at all. It is the Chief Magistrate's responsibility to oversee the holding of inquests and the Coroners Act provides adequately for ensuring that every unnatural death should be the subject of a public investigation. Indeed, for this purpose, every magistrate is a coroner and everyone who becomes aware of an unnatural death is required to notify it to the coroner or the nearest police station.
Further, a member of the Police Force who becomes aware of an unnatural death is obliged to report it to the coroner and the coroner to whom such a death has been reported similarly is obliged to investigate the cause of death and, if necessary, to hold an inquest or inquiry. A coroner who neglects or refuses to hold an inquest or inquiry can be fined although there is no known case in which any coroner has been punished for such delinquency. Notwithstanding Justice Kennard's concerns, therefore, holding an inquest or inquiry depends on neither the Police Force's investigations nor the Police Complaints Authority's recommendations but on the conscientiousness of the district magistrate.
Coroners' inquests can do much to restore public confidence in the Police Force and to allay public disquiet over the all-too-frequent cases of police killings. More than two years ago, the Disciplined Forces Commission recommended the establishment of a special coroner's office staffed with some magistrates with national jurisdiction to give effect to the Coroners Act and to clear the backlog of undetermined cases.
Insofar as inquests into police killings are not held expeditiously, public confidence in the Police Force will continue to fall.