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Guyana received a downward trend arrow due to the failure of the government to effectively reform a police force facing credible accusations of extrajudicial killings.
Guyanese political life was dominated in 2004 by public allegations by a self-confessed police informant about the existence of death squads that included current and former police officers. The charges spilled over into the political arena, when the main opposition party announced it was breaking off a "constructive engagement" dialogue with the government begun in May 2003.
From independence in 1966 until 1992, Guyana was ruled by the autocratic, predominantly Afro-Guyanese, People's National Congress (PNC). Descendants of indentured workers from India - known as Indo-Guyanese - make up about half of the population, while about 36 percent are Afro-Guyanese descended from African slaves.
Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo, of the PPP/C, an alliance of the predominantly Indo-Guyanese People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the Civic Party, replaced the alliance's Janet Jagan as president after she resigned, because of ill health, in August 1999. Jagdeo was reelected on March 19, 2001, after 90 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots in voting that showed the country's continuing deep divisions along racial lines. Jagdeo's first initiative on being declared the winner was to make a televised national appeal to his countrymen to begin a process of national healing. In mid-2001, violence erupted in several small towns in protest against crime, poverty, and poor public services.
A rising crime rate and a parliamentary impasse dominated Guyana's political scene throughout 2002. The PPP/C and the main opposition People's National Congress/Reform (PNC/R) traded bitter words over the issue of payment for opposition members engaged in a boycott of parliament that began in March 2002 and lasted for 14 months.
From February to September 2002, nearly a dozen police officers and more than 50 civilians were killed in an outbreak of violent crime that exacerbated uneasy relations between the two main races. In September, the PPP/C-dominated parliament passed four anticrime initiatives. However, PNC/R representatives who boycotted the legislative session claimed that the measures would not solve Guyana's crime problem, but rather were meant "to arm the regime with the draconian powers of dictatorship."
In January 2003, Amnesty International called recently adopted anticrime legislation "draconian" and said that its mandatory death penalty provisions for those committing a "terrorist act" were "in breach of international law." The organization was also particularly concerned that "the broad and vague definition of 'terrorist act'... could be interpreted so as to encompass activities which involve the legitimate exercise of rights guaranteed under international law," including the right to strike.
In September, a new controversy erupted with the publication of a draft of a June World Bank report that claimed there was a "crisis of governance" in Guyana, and that the government in Georgetown, which had yet to demonstrate a "real commitment to political reform," was unable to promote growth and development or to manage the challenges of endemic crime and corruption. The crisis, the report said, "discouraged investments, severely compromised good governance and fuelled migration." The World Bank report warned that increasing racial tension would result in violent conflict. Also, that month, Jagdeo asked U.S. president George Bush for help in combating cocaine trafficking, saying he feared that the Colombian drug trade was gaining a foothold in Guyana.
The political climate appeared to improve, however briefly, in early 2004, when the two main parties announced that they had reached agreement on a wide variety of issues, including tax reform, procurement, and the composition of the commissions that control appointments, promotions, and discipline in the judiciary, the police, public administration, and public education.
Then, in January 2004, a police informant brought public accusations of the existence of death squads whose members included serving and former police officials who, he said, enjoyed official sanction and had killed some 64 people. Investigations involving gun licenses and telephone records revealed alleged links to Guyana's home affairs minister, and both the United States and Canada revoked the minister's visa without publicly stating their reasons. However, efforts to probe the charges, which created both a domestic and international outcry, ground to a standstill when the informant himself was murdered in June and the chief magistrate heading the inquiry quit, following reports that she herself was on a death squad "hit list."
After accusations concerning the existence of the alleged death squads was heard, three "rule of law" marches were held in the nation's capital. Officials admitted that following the death of the former police informant who revealed the alleged existence of the death squads, potential witnesses were afraid to come forward. In protest of the alleged involvement of the home affairs minister with the death squads, the main opposition party, the PNC/R, began boycotting most sessions of parliament for several weeks, including the presentation and debate of the 2004 budget. The breakdown occurred just after the two parties announced agreement on a wide range of issues.
Citizens of Guyana can change their government democratically. The 2001 elections generated a broader consensus about the importance of election reform to the democratic process. The 1980 constitution provides for a strong president and a 65-seat National Assembly, elected every five years. The leader of the party winning the plurality of parliamentary seats becomes president for a five-year term, and the president appoints the prime minister and cabinet.
Guyana was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, the U.S. State Department's March 2004 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which declares the country to be a transshipment point for South American cocaine destined for North America and Europe, also says that "counter-narcotics efforts are undermined by corruption," and that "allegations of corruption are widespread, and reach to high levels of government, but continue to go uninvestigated."
Several independent newspapers operate freely, including the daily Stabroek News. However, a growing number of journalists charged the government with failure to respect freedom of the electronic media. The government owns and operates the country's sole radio station, which broadcasts on three frequencies. There are no private radio stations. Seventeen privately owned television stations freely criticize the government. However, opposition party leaders complain that they lack access to the state media.
Guyanese generally enjoy freedom of religion, and the government does not restrict academic freedom.
The freedom to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions is generally respected. Labor unions are well organized. However, companies are not obligated to recognize unions in former state enterprises sold off by the government.
The judicial system is independent, although due process is undermined by shortages of staff and funds. Guyana was the only former British colony in the Caribbean to have cut all ties to the Privy Council of London, the court of last resort for other former colonies in the region. A Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice, which will open its doors in 2005, will become Guyana's highest appellate court. Prisons are overcrowded, and conditions are poor.
The Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana Police Force are under civilian control, the latter invested with the authority to make arrests and maintain law and order throughout the country. Racial polarization has seriously eroded Guyana law enforcement: Many Indo-Guyanese say they are victims of Afro-Guyanese criminals at the same time that they are largely ignored by the predominantly Afro-Guyanese police; many Afro-Guyanese claim that the police are manipulated by the government for its own purposes. Although official inquiries have repeatedly pointed to the need for improved investigative techniques, more funding, community-oriented policing, better disciplinary procedures, and greater accountability, as well as a better ethnic balance, in the police, the government has given mostly lip service to the proposed reforms. The March 2004 State Department narcotics control report noted that "the swearing-in by the Guyana Police Force of a reputed drug lord and several of his cohorts as special constables raises serious questions about the integrity of the Force."
The Guyana Human Rights Association, an autonomous and effective group backed by independent civic and religious groups, reported that security forces killed 39 civilians during 2003, compared with 28 in 2002. Although authorities have taken some steps to investigate extrajudicial killings, and charges against some officers have been brought, the numbers are further evidence that abuses are still committed with impunity.
Racial clashes have diminished within the last decade. However, long-standing animosity between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese remains a deep concern. A Racial Hostility Bill passed in September 2002 increased the penalties for race-based crimes. In May 2003, the government appointed an ethnic relations commission to help combat discrimination and reduce social tensions.
There are nine groups of indigenous peoples in Guyana numbering approximately 80,000, or 10 percent of the population, and they constitute the country's fastest-growing ethnic group. Human rights violations against them are widespread and pervasive, particularly concerning the failure of the state to adequately respect indigenous land and resource rights. Indigenous peoples' attempts to seek redress through the courts have been met with unwarranted delays by the judiciary. On a positive note, two large Amerindian communities, the Konashen and the Baramita, recently received absolute grants to their lands that will allow their villages the permanent right to their property.
Violence against women, including domestic violence, is common in Guyana. There are no legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. In a positive development, in 2004, a group, Men Of Purpose, was created to combat domestic violence. In 2003, the government shelved a constitutional amendment that would have outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians.