Trinidad and Tobago
The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a parliamentary democracy governed by a prime minister and a bicameral legislature. The island of Tobago’s House of Assembly has some administrative autonomy over local matters. In elections in 2015, which observers considered generally free and fair, the opposition People’s National Movement, led by Keith Rowley, defeated the ruling People’s Partnership, led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included refoulement of refugees and corruption.
The government took some steps to punish security force members and other officials charged with killings or other abuses, but open-ended investigations and the generally slow pace of criminal judicial proceedings created a climate of impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. According to official figures, police shot and killed 28 persons through October 9, compared with 46 in 2017. There were occasional discrepancies between the official reporting of shooting incidents and the claims made by witnesses regarding who fired the first shot and whether the officers fired in self-defense. Police investigated all police shooting deaths.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, there were some reports that police officers and prison guards sometimes mistreated individuals under arrest or in detention.
Officials from the Police Complaints Authority (PCA), a civilian oversight body that investigates complaints about the conduct of police officers, reported receiving few cases of cruel and inhuman treatment.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in some of the prison system’s nine facilities continued to be harsh due to overcrowding.
Physical Conditions: Convicted inmates constituted approximately 37 percent of the country’s prison population, while the others were in pretrial status, according to figures from 2017, the most recent data available. Most prisons suffered from extreme overcrowding, although the maximum-security prison was not at full capacity. Observers noted the Port of Spain Prison, the remand prison, and the immigration detention center had particularly poor conditions and severe overcrowding, with as many as nine prisoners kept in cells of 80 square feet. The Port of Spain Prison, designed to hold 250 inmates, held 595, and the remand prison, designed to hold 655 inmates, held 1,049, according to figures from 2016, the most recent data available. By contrast, the maximum-security prison held inmates in three-person cells, each with a toilet and shower.
The remand section of the Port of Spain Prison had particularly poor lighting, ventilation, and sanitation facilities.
Although conditions at the women’s prison were better than those in the Port of Spain Prison, the women’s facility occasionally became overcrowded, since it held both women on remand and those serving prison sentences. The daily average female prison population was 109 in facilities with a maximum capacity of 158, according to figures from 2017. Since there was no female youth facility, authorities placed some underage female prisoners in a segregated wing of the women’s prison and returned others to their families. Observers raised concerns the prison held young girls who had not committed any offense but were merely in state custody.
The government also operated the Immigration Detention Center (IDC) to house irregular immigrants waiting to be deported. The average length of detention was one week to two months, depending on the speed with which the government secured public funding for deportation, as well as transit passports and visas. In some cases detention lasted more than four years. Observers reported the men’s section continued to be overcrowded.
In June a group of Cubans, Venezuelans, and Africans held at the IDC staged two protests against the conditions of the detention center and length of their stay in the facility. Some of those protesting had been at the IDC for more than one year, even after requesting repatriation.
Administration: Authorities generally conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit outside observers, such as the United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross, or other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), free access to conduct monitoring visits or interviews in the IDC. Other than the IDC, the government permitted regular and open prison visits by UN officials and independent human rights observers upon approval of the Ministry of National Security. These observers enjoyed a reasonable degree of independence.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements. Reports of abuses by police remained under investigation at year’s end.
In May the government passed an updated version of the Anti-Gang Act, which bans membership in criminal gangs and gang-related activities and permits authorities to hold suspects detained under the law without a warrant for up to 14 days, subject to a court order authorizing the detention. The opposition party raised human rights concerns; however, the government rarely relied upon measures contained in the act.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of National Security oversees three major divisions–the police service, immigration division, and defense force. The police service maintains internal security, while the defense force, which includes the coast guard, is responsible for external security but also has certain domestic security responsibilities. The coast guard is the main authority responsible for border security along the coastlines where there are no official ports of entry. The Customs and Excise Division and the Immigration Division are responsible for security at the ports. Members of the defense force often joined police officers in patrolling high-crime neighborhoods but do not have arrest authority (apart from the coast guard, which can arrest in territorial waters and the Southern Caribbean).
The independent Police Service Commission (PSC), in consultation with the prime minister, appoints a commissioner of police to oversee the police force. In August the PSC appointed former minister of national security Gary Griffith as the new commissioner of police. The PSC also makes hiring and firing decisions in the police service, and the Ministry of National Security typically has little direct influence over changes in senior positions. The PSC has the power to dismiss police officers, the commissioner of police can suspend officers, and the police service handles the prosecution of officers. Municipal police, under the jurisdiction of 14 regional administrative bodies, supplement the national police force. Public confidence in police was very low because of high crime rates and perceived corruption.
The PCA investigates complaints about the conduct of police officers, including fatal police shootings; however, it received insufficient funding and had limited investigative authority. By law the PCA is free from the direction or control of any other person in the performance of its functions. The PCA had 25 investigators, and from October 2017 through August 27, the unit received 373 complaints, 300 of which were pending as of November. Through investigations by the PCA and other bodies, authorities charged police officers with a number of offenses, including attempted murder and corruption. The Police Professional Standards Unit and the Police Complaints Division, both nonindependent bodies within the police service, also investigated complaints against police.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
A police officer may arrest a person based on a warrant issued or authorized by a magistrate, or without a warrant if the officer witnesses the commission of an offense. Detainees, as well as those summoned to appear before a magistrate, must appear in court within 48 hours. In cases of more serious offenses, the magistrate either commits the accused to prison on remand or allows the accused to post bail, pending a preliminary inquiry. Authorities granted detainees immediate access to a lawyer and to family members. Attorneys representing individual clients in the IDC also generally were allowed to visit them in the center.
Ordinarily, bail was available for minor charges. Persons charged with murder, treason, piracy, kidnapping for ransom, and hijacking, as well as persons convicted twice of violent crimes, are ineligible for bail for a period of up to 120 days following the charge, but a judge may grant bail to such persons under exceptional circumstances. When authorities denied bail, magistrates advised the accused of their right to an attorney and, with few exceptions, allowed them access to an attorney once they were in custody and prior to interrogation.
The minister of national security may authorize preventive detention to preclude actions prejudicial to public safety, public order, or national defense, in which case the minister must state the grounds for the detention.
Arbitrary Arrest: Instances of false arrest, although infrequent, were reported. Victims may pursue legal redress and the right to a fair trial through an independent judiciary.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention resulting from heavy court backlogs and inefficiencies in the judicial system continued to be a problem. Pretrial detainees or remand prisoners represented more than half the prison population. Most persons under indictment waited seven to 10 years for their trial dates in the High Court, although some waited much longer. Officials cited several reasons for the backlog, including an understaffed prosecutorial office, a shortage of defense attorneys for indigent persons, and the burden of the preliminary inquiry process. Additionally, the law requires anyone charged and detained to appear in person for a hearing before a magistrate’s court every 10 days, if only to have the case postponed for an additional 10 days, resulting in further inefficiency.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Although the judicial process was generally fair, it was slow due to backlogs and inefficiencies. Prosecutors and judges stated that witness and jury intimidation remained a problem.
The law provides all defendants with the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Magistrates try both minor and more serious offenses, but in the latter cases, the magistrate must conduct a preliminary inquiry. Defendants have the right to be present, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to appeal. Authorities inform them promptly and in detail of all charges. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney in a timely manner and have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Authorities provide an attorney at public expense to defendants facing serious criminal charges, and the law requires provision of an attorney to any person accused of murder. Although the courts may appoint attorneys for indigent persons charged with serious crimes, an indigent person may refuse to accept an assigned attorney for cause and may obtain a replacement. Defendants can confront or question adverse witnesses and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The government provides free foreign language interpreters as well as sign-language interpreters as necessary in court cases.
Both civil and criminal appeals may be filed with the Court of Appeal and ultimately with the Privy Council in the United Kingdom.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Individuals or organizations are free to file lawsuits against civil breaches of human rights in both the High Court and petty civil court. The High Court may review the decisions of lower courts, order parties to cease and desist from particular actions, compel parties to take specific actions, and award damages to aggrieved parties. Court cases may be appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Violence and Harassment: In contrast with 2017, there were no credible reports of journalists subjected to violence, harassment, or intimidation due to their reporting.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 77 percent of citizens used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government forced some asylum seekers to return to their home country.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and other persons of concern under its mandate; however, this cooperation was considerably strained in numerous cases. Refugees and asylum seekers were often the subjects of immigration enforcement actions and deportations, affecting their freedom of movement.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: On April 21, the government deported 82 Venezuelans to their home country, some of whom were seeking asylum. Some of the deported asylum seekers expressed a well founded fear of Venezuelan authorities learning their identities, yet officials overseeing the deportation sought the assistance of the Venezuelan embassy during the process.
In principle, refugees are granted full protection from refoulement and detention if presented to the Immigration Division upon applying for asylum. In practice, however, the lack of adequate legal protection meant that valid, registered refugees and asylum seekers were often arrested and detained on immigration charges.
Access to Asylum: In the absence of national refugee legislation, UNHCR registered all asylum seekers, conducted refugee status determinations on behalf of the government, and attempted to promote durable solutions for all refugees recognized under UNHCR’s mandate.
The law does not provide for any exemption or nonpenalization of irregular entry or stay of asylum seekers or refugees, although the government adopted a refugee policy in June. Persons who expressed a need for international protection could be subject to detention if they entered via irregular ways or exceeded their permitted length of stay without having presented themselves voluntarily to the authorities.
The Living Water Community (LWC), a local Roman Catholic NGO and UNHCR’s operational partner, was the first point of contact for persons in need of international protection. It provided reception services, orientation, and counseling, and it notified the Ministry of National Security’s Immigration Division of the respective asylum applications. In coordination with UNHCR, the LWC engaged in case management and provided psychosocial care and humanitarian assistance, including cash, housing assistance, and legal aid, among other services.
The Ministry of National Security’s Immigration Division authorized the stay of asylum seekers and refugees through the issuance of orders of supervision. These orders provided for protection against detention or deportation. In exchange for issuing an order of supervision, however, immigration authorities often confiscated the passports of refugees and asylum seekers and retained custody of their passports until the refugees or asylum seekers provided a financial deposit equivalent to a return flight ticket to their home country. This inhibited the freedom of movement of many refugees and asylum seekers and, in many cases, effectively trapped them in a country where they were not legally allowed to work and where their access to public services was considerably hindered. Many refugees and asylum seekers experienced xenophobia and discrimination, and sexual and gender-based violence was a particular concern for women.
Employment: In the absence of implementing legislation, neither refugees nor asylum seekers were permitted to work. They were sometimes subjected to exploitation, including sexual exploitation.
Access to Basic Services: Refugee and asylum-seeking children did not have access to public education, because by law they do not qualify for the required student permit. Refugees and asylum seekers struggled to access all but emergency public-health facilities. They did not have access to identity documents and were obliged to surrender their passports to the Immigration Division to remain in the country legally.
Durable Solutions: Due to the absence of national legislation that would allow for local integration, resettlement was traditionally the only durable solution for refugees in the country, but this was difficult due to lack of available spaces. UNHCR, the LWC, and the International Organization for Migration continued to collaborate on the identification, submission, and transfer of refugees in need of resettlement.
Some refugees and asylum seekers abandoned their claims and left the country due to the lengthy processing time and lack of rights, particularly the right to work. Many also feared harassment and discrimination.
The government also collaborated with UNHCR to facilitate the resettlement of a few refugees to smaller Caribbean islands by allowing them to stay temporarily in the country to complete the formalities required for resettlement and then directly travel to their new asylum country.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices. There were reports of government corruption during the year, and the World Economic Forum and Transparency International ranked corruption as a problematic factor for doing business in the country. There were no documented instances of an individual receiving a criminal punishment for corruption.
Corruption: Corruption in police and immigration services continued to be a problem, with senior officials acknowledging that officers participated in corrupt and illegal activities. There were allegations that some police officers had close relationships with gang leaders and that police, customs, and immigration officers often accepted bribes to facilitate drug, weapons, and human smuggling as well as human trafficking.
In September, two police officers were arrested for kidnapping and holding an innocent person for ransom. The minister of national security and commissioner of police worked quickly on the case, ensuring the safe release of the victim and arresting the suspected police officers. As of November the case was pending, but all charged officers remained incarcerated.
There were continued allegations that some ministers used their positions for personal gain.
Financial Disclosure: The law mandates that public officials disclose their assets, income, and liabilities to the Integrity Commission, which monitors, verifies, and publishes disclosures. Officials and candidates for public office were reluctant to comply with asset disclosure rules, primarily due to the perceived invasiveness of the process. The act stipulates a process when public officials fail to disclose assets and provides criminal penalties for failure to comply. The law clearly states which assets, liabilities, and interests public officials must declare.
While the commission undertook numerous investigations, it seldom referred cases to law enforcement authorities, and prosecution of those officials who refused to comply with asset disclosure rules was very limited.