Amnesty calls for independent probe of BASS killings

Stabroek News
August 25, 2001

Amnesty International (AI), in an open letter to President Bharrat Jagdeo, has called for an independent and thorough investigation into the shooting deaths of Azad Bacchus, his 15-year old son Shaazah and his 18-year old nephew, Fadil Ally on August 14, by members of the Berbice Anti-Smuggling Squad (BASS).

The human rights group also expressed concern that their deaths "are part of a pattern of extra-judicial executions and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials in Guyana."

"As President of Guyana, we urge you to demonstrate that the Government of Guyana has the political will necessary to prosecute and punish offenders for human rights violations -- and to prevent and challenge impunity, through immediate action on this and other cases," the letter said.

It also expressed concern about the reports about the deaths of Saif Ghani and Steven Angel, who were also killed by BASS members, and the injuring of four others on August 17, during a protest in front of the BASS headquarters.

The letter also expressed concern about remarks made by Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon, criticising the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), in which he slammed the GHRA for suggesting that community retaliation was an option if an independent investigation into shooting deaths by BASS was not conducted. It said that such comments contributed to a lack of respect for human rights and might encourage harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Guyana.

An Office of the President official yesterday acknowledged that the letter had been received and was being studied, but suggested that AI should await the results of the investigation ordered by President Jagdeo into the deaths. The official pointed out that at his press conference on Thursday, President Jagdeo made it clear that he would await the results of the investigation before taking a position on the issues related to the two incidents.

The letter to President Jagdeo, signed by Anne Burley, a researcher on behalf of the Secretary General of AI, referred to the differences in the reports from the police and the victims' relatives. "Reports indicate that Azad Bacchus was shot in the stomach and that Fadil's hand was broken," the letter said.

About the shooting in front of the BASS headquarters, the letter said the circumstances in which the shootings occurred suggested that guidelines on the use of force and firearms in policing unlawful assemblies had not been adhered to. "The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, law enforcement officials may use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life."

The letter asserted too that international standards also emphasised that everyone was allowed to participate in lawful and peaceful assemblies, in accordance with the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

About AI's concern about the excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies, the letter asserted "the authorities have repeatedly failed to ensure the protection of the internationally recognized fundamental right to life - and to take measures to prevent such killings".

A recent case indicative of this trend, the letter said, was the slaying of Sean Hope by the Target Special Squad at his home at Agricola, East Bank Demerara. "Reports stated Sean Hope was shot at point-blank range in the head as he begged for his life in front of his five-year-old foster son.

"Every unpunished crime committed by a law enforcement official exemplifies the collective failure of the authorities to ensure accountability for human rights violations. These failures can only contribute to the perception that law enforcement officers may act with impunity, resulting in an erosion of public confidence in the justice system in Guyana."

The letter said that dismantling a culture of impunity could only start when those responsible for each and every individual violation were brought to account by the authorities.

The letter said that as a consequence AI was urging the following steps:

* An immediate thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the killings of Azad Bacchus, Shaazah Bacchus and Fadil Ally in accordance with international standards, including the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions;

* Any officer found guilty of committing crimes should be brought to justice;

* Officers allegedly implicated in the killings should be removed from front?line duty for the duration of criminal and administrative investigations;

* Relatives should be granted permission to appoint an independent pathologist to undertake or observe post-mortem examinations -- and must be kept fully informed of the status of investigations;

* All necessary measures should be taken to protect relatives, and others involved in inquiries into the killings, from any possible instances of retaliation.

The letter called attention to remarks by Health Minister, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, who was reported as saying that the killings "could have been avoided... The more I talk to people... I'm convinced there are genuine areas of concern and that the government will have to act decisively."