Mar 10, 2016 News
The testimonies of five prisoners will kick-start the Commission of Inquiry that was ordered by President David Granger to probe the disturbances and resultant deaths of 17 inmates of the Camp Street Prison
The Commission, which is being chaired by retired Judge James Patterson and includes former Prison Director Dale Erskine and Human Rights Activist Merle Mendonca, will commence taking the evidence today in the full view of the public.
Speaking to reporters at the Commission’s first media conference, Chairman Justice Patterson explained that while the Commission cannot accommodate everybody who would want to make presentations it will try its best to hear evidence from as many persons as possible.
He cautioned, though, that it will not be a free for all hearing.
“We have staff who will have to take proof of the evidence to be aired here and then obviously we would have to make a choice. We can’t accommodate everybody who wants to say something. There’s always the exhibitionist element in things like this,” Justice Patterson.
Of course since the commission has all the powers of the High Court it will have to safeguard itself against those who will want to give evidence that is contrary to the fact, hence the question of how it will deal with possible perjury.
Justice Patterson said that the commission will be accepting any video evidence that might be presented, as well as evidence from persons who might want to remain incognito.
“There are some people who want to give evidence but they are afraid of retribution of some sort; that’s not going to happen under my watch. They can give it in camera if I so determine,” the COI Chairman assured.
On Thursday, March 3, a fire in the Capital A Block at the Georgetown Prison spiraled out of control. Seventeen prisoners, who were among several trapped inside, perished. Five others were severely burnt and are recovering in hospital.
The following day, protests erupted leading to an emergency meeting between representatives of the prisoners and Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of State Joseph Harmon, which led to a return to normalcy.
The Commission will be examining evidence to determine what happened and how it happened.
In this regard the focus will be on events leading up to the fires, the deaths and the actions taken to assist the victims. Testimonies of prisoners, officers involved in the event and possibly family members will be the main source of this information.
The Commission will also look into what did not happen that ought to have happened.
This part of the inquiry relates to the adequacy of the support services crucial to the Prison Service performing its duties adequately.
According to the Terms of Reference, the Commission is to determine whether the deaths of the 17 prisoners resulted due to negligence, abandonment of duty, disregard of instructions, inaction of the prison officers who were on duty on the night of 2nd March sand the morning of March 3.
The Commission is expected to examine and make findings and recommendations to improve the physical infrastructure of the prison; make recommendations on the existing security arrangements in respect to custody and determine the appropriate treatment of prisoners in compliance with legal and other requirements.
Initially, the Commission was scheduled to render its report, findings and recommendations to the Minister of Public Security by March 28 but given the anticipated magnitude of evidence that it might have to consider, that date is almost certain to be reviewed.
“We can’t determine the longevity of it until we see how many people want to testify, but it doesn’t look like any mentioned time can stand,” the COI Chairman said.
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