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Title: Bahamas Human Rights Practices, 1995 Author: U.S. Department of State Date: March 1996 BAHAMAS The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is a constitutional, parliamentary democracy and a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Queen Elizabeth II, the nominal Head of State, is represented by an appointed Governor General. Prime Minister Hubert A. Ingraham's Free National Movement (FNM) has controlled the Government and Parliament since 1992. The police and the small Bahamas Defence Force answer to civilian authority and generally respect laws protecting human rights. However, there continued to be credible reports that police occasionally abuse detainees. The economy depends primarily on tourism, which accounts for over two- thirds of the gross domestic product. Financial services, particularly offshore banking and trust management, are also a major source of revenue. While some Bahamians enjoy relatively high average income levels, the official unemployment level is reported at over 13 percent; there is also considerable underemployment and some poverty. Bahamians enjoy a wide range of democratic freedoms and human rights. The principal human rights problems centered on occasional police abuse of detainees, harsh and overcrowded conditions at the only prison, delays in trials, violence and discrimination against women, violence against children, and the occasional practice of administering corporal punishment prior to the period allowed for appeal. RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from: a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing There were no reports of politically motivated killings by the Government or domestic political groups. In September an off-duty policeman in Nassau was killed and his body dumped on a nearby island. Investigators later discovered that he had been shot while entering a car occupied by two fellow off-duty officers. The officers involved did not have authorization to possess firearms, were dismissed from the force, and currently face murder charges. A civil suit is still pending over the May 1994 death of a detainee in police custody in which the coroner's court jury found that police were negligent for failing to provide necessary medical care. A police officer was acquitted of murder charges stemming from an October 1994 incident in which he, while off duty, allegedly shot at five men during an altercation, killing one. Two police officers convicted in 1994 of manslaughter in the 1989 beating death of a suspect were acquitted in March on appeal. b. Disappearance There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment The Constitution prohibits torture and other cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, but corporal punishment, abolished in 1984, was reinstated in 1991. Local human rights monitors protested that in some instances the authorities administered punishments prior to the proper period allowed for appeal, and without legal representation for the defense. Corporal punishment retains broad public support. Human rights monitors and members of the general public expressed concern over continued instances of police abuse against criminal suspects. Many of the charges of abuse involved beatings in order to extract confessions. The police Complaints and Discipline Unit, which reports directly to senior police officials, is responsible for investigating allegations of police brutality. Police officials disciplined or dismissed some police officers as a result of complaints, although some alleged victims also claimed that police officers threatened them after they had filed a complaint. An immigration officer convicted of assault in the beating of a Jamaican attorney at Nassau International Airport in 1994 lost his initial appeal, and appealed his case further. Conditions at Fox Hill, the only prison, improved modestly, but remained harsh and overcrowded. The men's prison, originally built in 1953 to house about 500 inmates, holds over 1,100 prisoners. Male prisoners are crowded into poorly ventilated cells which generally lack running water and adequate sanitation facilities. There are no separate facilities for inmates being held on remand, although some are eventually segregated to a medium security wing after being processed through maximum security. In July an inmate being held on remand in maximum security on minor theft charges was found severely beaten in his cell. He died a short time later at the public hospital. The authorities charged another inmate in his death. A second inmate died of natural causes resulting from his infection with AIDS. Prison officials estimate that about 13 percent of the incoming prisoner population is infected with the HIV virus. Most prisoners lack beds, many sleep on concrete floors, and most are locked in their cells 23 hours per day. Facilities for women are less severe and have running water. Local and international human rights groups visited the prison during the year. Organizatioons providing aid, counseling services, and religious instruction have regular access to inmates. Despite fiscal constraints, prison officials continued modest but measurable steps to improve prison conditions and develop prisoner rehabilitation programs. d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The authorities conduct arrests openly and, when required, obtain judicially issued warrants. Serious cases, including those of suspected narcotics or firearms offenses, do not require warrants where probable cause exists. Arrested persons appear before a magistrate within 48 hours (or by the next business day for cases arising on weekends and holidays) to hear the charges against them. They may hire an attorney of their choice. The Government does not provide legal representation except to destitute suspects charged with capital crimes. Police sometimes deviate from prescribed procedures, however, and act arbitrarily. The Government respects the right to a judicial determination of the legality of arrests. Judges tend not to grant bail to foreign suspects, particularly on more serious offenses, since the authorities consider foreign offenders likely to flee if released on bail. Judges sometimes authorize cash bail for foreigners arrested on minor charges, but in practice, foreign suspects generally prefer to plead guilty and pay a fine rather than pursue their right to defend themselves, given the several months' backlog of court cases and harsh conditions at Fox Hill Prison. The authorities detain illegal migrants, primarily Haitians and Cubans, at the Carmichael Road Detention Center until arrangements can be made for them to leave the country. Illegal migrants convicted of crimes other than immigration violations are held at Fox Hill and remain there for weeks or months, pending deportation after serving their sentences, unless they can arrange privately for their repatriation. Due to security concerns, the authorities earlier in the year temporarily transferred groups of Haitian and Cuban detainees from the Detention Center to Fox Hill Prison after fighting broke out. These detainees have all since been released or deported. Exile is illegal and is not practiced. e. Denial of Fair Public Trial The justice system derives from English common law. The judiciary, appointed by the executive branch on the advice of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, has always been independent. Trials are fair and public; defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence and the right to appeal. However, an overburdened judicial system must handle a steadily increasing caseload, which results in excessive pretrial detention and delayed justice for victims. The opening of new courts by the Government has reduced the backlog of cases, particularly in domestic disputes, but criminal cases can still be delayed in excess of 2 years before defendants receive a trial. There were no reports of political prisoners. f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence The Constitution prohibits arbitrary entry, search, or seizure and the Government generally respects these prohibitions in practice. The law usually requires a court order for entry into or search of a private residence, but a police inspector or more senior police official may authorize a search without a court order where probable cause of a weapons violation exists. Such an official may also authorize the search of a person (which extends to the vehicle in which the person is traveling) without a court order should probable cause of drug possession exist. The Government neither censors mail nor restricts receipt of foreign correspondence or publications. Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: a. Freedom of Speech and Press The Government respects the constitutional provision for the right of free expression, and the political opposition criticizes the Government freely and frequently. Two daily and several weekly newspapers, all privately owned, express a variety of views on issues of public interest, including varying degrees of criticism of the Government and its policies. Foreign newspapers and magazines are readily available. Two radio stations, both privately owned, compete with a government-run network and include lively political debates in their programming. The country's sole television station, the state-owned Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas, presents a variety of views, although opposition politicians claim with some justification that their views do not receive as extensive coverage as those of the Government. b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association The Constitution provides for the rights to free assembly and association, and the authorities respect these rights in practice. The law permits private associations, but groups must obtain permits to hold public demonstrations. The authorities grant such permits almost without exception. c. Freedom of Religion The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government respects this right in practice. d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. Following the restoration of President Aristide in Haiti, the Bahamas reestablished diplomatic relations with Haiti and negotiated a repatriation agreement, whereby 800 Haitians residing illegally in the Bahamas could be returned to Haiti every month over a period of 1 year. The Bahamas offered free transportation and limited financial incentives to induce Haitians to depart voluntarily, though far fewer than expected did so. Reports from the initial roundups of Haitian migrants in February and March claimed that police and immigration officials physically mishandled some detainees, but reports since that time uniformly state that repatriation procedures are proceeding smoothly and without incident. The presence of an estimated 35,000 Haitian migrants in the Bahamas remains a sensitive social, economic, and political issue. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. The Bahamas is a constitutional, parliamentary democracy with two major political parties and general elections at least every 5 years. An elected Prime Minister and Parliament govern. The political process is open to all elements of society, and citizens 18 years of age and older are eligible to register and vote; voting is by secret ballot. In the 1992 elections, slightly more than 92 percent of registered voters cast valid ballots. The two principal political parties are the ruling Free National Movement and the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP). The PLP led the country for 6 years of internal self-government from 1967 to 1973, and held power under Prime Minister Sir Lynden 0. Pindling from independence in 1973 to 1992. The FNM holds 32 of 49 seats in the House of Assembly, and the PLP holds 17. Both the ruling party and the opposition name members to the upper house, the Senate, in compliance with constitutional guidelines. Although it does pass legislation, the Senate is primarily a deliberative body that serves as a public forum to discuss national problems and policies to address them. Women are underrepresented in the legislature. The Parliament has four elected female members, including the deputy speaker of the House, and three appointed female Senators, including the government leader in the Senate. Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights Individual human rights monitors, several local human rights groups, as well as representatives of international human rights organizations operate freely, expressing their opinions and reporting their findings on alleged human rights violations without government restriction. The Government allows them broad access to institutions and individuals. Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status The Government generally respects in practice the constitutional provisions for individual rights and freedoms regardless of race, place of origin, political opinion, creed, or sex. However, both the Constitution and the law discriminate against women in several respects. Women Domestic violence against women continued to be a serious problem, with independent women's support groups reporting that many women sought shelter at the private, but government-supported, crisis center in Nassau. The domestic court, dealing exclusively with family issues such as spousal abuse, maintenance payments, and legal separation, received a significantly increased volume of cases this year. Officials attribute the increase to the greater willingness of victims to pursue their claims as a result of the court's decreased backlog, rather than to any increase in actual offenses. The court installed a one-way mirror this year to help shield victims from being identified by suspects. The court can and does impose various legal constraints to protect women from abusive spouses or companions. The Constitution discriminates against women by not providing them with the same right as men to transmit citizenship to their foreign-born spouses. Additionally, the law makes it easier for Bahamian men with foreign spouses to confer citizenship on their children than for Bahamian women with foreign spouses. Some inheritance laws also favor men over women. For example, when a person dies without a will, the estate passes to the oldest legitimate son, or in cases where there is no son, the closest legitimate male relative. Women participate fully in Bahamian society and are well represented in the business and professional sectors, as well as in the judiciary and the Government. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Janet Bostwick, who was formerly the Minister of Justice, is personally responsible for the office known as the Government's Women's Affairs Unit. Children The Government places priority on maintaining adequate expenditures for child welfare and education. However, child abuse and neglect remain serious problems. The law requires that anyone having contact with a child they believe to be sexually abused must report their suspicion to the police. The same reporting requirement does not apply to cases of physical abuse, which also are increasing. The police refer reported cases of sexual and physical abuse to the Department of Social Services, which investigates them and can bring criminal charges against perpetrators. The Department may remove children from abusive situations if the court deems it necessary. People With Disabilities Although the 1973 National Building Code mandates certain accommodations for the physically disabled in new public buildings, the authorities rarely enforce this part of the Code. Private buildings are also not routinely accessible. The Disability Affairs Unit of the Ministry of Social Development and National Insurance works with the Bahamas Council for the Disabled, an umbrella organization for groups offering services for the disabled, to provide a coordinated public and private sector approach to the needs of the disabled. A mix of government and private residential and nonresidential institutions provides a range of educational, training, and counseling services for both physically and mentally disabled adults and children. Section 6 Worker Rights a. The Right of Association The Constitution provides that labor unions have the right of free assembly and association. Private sector and most public sector workers may form or join unions without prior approval. Members of the police force, defense force, fire brigade, and prison guards may not organize or join unions. Workers exercise the right of association extensively; almost one-quarter of the work force (and one-half the workers in the important hotel industry) belong to unions. The country's two major umbrella labor organizations, the National Workers Council of Trade Unions and Associations and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and individual labor unions all function independent of government or political party control. In October six trade unions signed a National Congress of Trade Unions constitution. The new constitution will provide a unified forum for over 27,000 workers from the Musicians and Entertainers Union, Taxi Cab Union, Maritime Port and Allied Workers Union, Commercial Stores and Supermarkets Union, Public Service Union, and the Bahamas Hotel Catering and Allied Workers Union (the country's largest). The Industrial Relations Act requires that, before a strike begins, a simple majority of a union's membership must vote in favor of a motion to strike. The Office of Labor must supervise the vote. The Minister of State for the Public Service and Labor may also refer a dispute involving employees of an "essential service" to the Industrial Relations Board for settlement, if the Minister determines that the public interest requires such action. The Bahamas Hotel Catering and Allied Workers Union conducted a number of work stoppages and strikes at resort hotels during the year. In September the Airport, Airlines and Allied Workers Union staged a "sick-out" against Bahamasair in an unsuccessful attempt to gain salary increases. All labor unions have the right to maintain affiliations with international trade union organizations. b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively Workers freely exercise their right to organize and participate in collective bargaining, and the law protects it. Unions and employers negotiate wage rates without government interference. The Constitution and the Industrial Relations Act prohibit antiunion discrimination by employers. The Act requires employers to recognize trade unions. The Industrial Relations Board mediates disputes between employees or unions and their employers. Mechanisms exist to resolve complaints, including filing a trade union dispute with the Ministry of State for the Public Service and Labor or bringing a civil suit against the employer in court. The Act requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. Employers may dismiss workers in accordance with applicable contracts, which generally require some severance pay. The Government enforces labor laws and regulations uniformly throughout the country. The Bahamas has two small free trade zones. Labor law and practice in these zones do not differ from those in the rest of the country. c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and such labor does not exist in practice. d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children The law prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 years for industrial work, work during school hours, or work at night. There is no legal minimum age for employment in other sectors, and some children work part time in light industry and service jobs. e. Acceptable Conditions of Work The Fair Labor Standards Act limits the regular workweek to 48 hours and provides for one 24-hour rest period weekly. The act requires overtime payment (time and a half) for hours beyond the standard. The act permits the creation of a Wages Council to recommend the setting of a minimum wage. To date, however, the Bahamas has not established such a council or a minimum wage. The Ministry of State for the Public Service and Labor, responsible for enforcing labor laws, has a team of inspectors who conduct on-site visits to enforce occupational health and safety standards and investigate employee concerns and complaints, but inspections occur only infrequently. The Ministry normally announces inspection visits in advance, and employers generally cooperate with inspectors to implement safety standards. In September the Government, in conjunction with the International Labor Organization and the TUC, sponsored a 4-day seminar on occupational safety and health and the environment in order to promote greater awareness and enforcement of worker health and safety standards. The national insurance program compensates workers for work-related injuries. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to find suitable alternative employment for employees injured on the job but still able to work. The law does not provide a right for workers to absent themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment. (###)
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