Minister admits Prison Service burying dead foreign prisoners without families’ knowledge
…claims finding relatives a difficult task
Public Security Minister, Khemraj Ramjattam has admitted that the Guyana Prison Service has indeed been burying foreign prisoners who died in Guyana without their families’ knowledge. Speaking with Guyana Times on the sidelines of Parliament last week, Ramjattan said that this happens because of the Prison Service’s inability to contact relatives. He noted that in some instances, relatives are reluctant to claim their loved ones’ bodies.
“I understand it was difficult for the Director of Prisons to get on to some of the family members,” Ramjattan said when asked about the reports that Guyana is secretly burying dead foreign prisoners.
“That is what the explanation is. There are some people who will come into the prison system, difficult to get their family members in time for bodies to be removed.”
“Sometimes, we understand from the Head too that when they tell the family members, they are too poor over there to send for them, the bodies, and that is a difficulty,” the Public Security Minister added.
Asked how many prisoners were buried in this manner, Ramjattan could not say. However, he made a commitment to seek those figures.
Earlier this year, reports had surfaced that visitors who entered Guyana illegally or overstayed their time were being held in cells at several police stations until they could fund their own airfare. In some instances, when prisoners cannot afford their transportation cost home, they are left to languish in their holding cells for months and, in cases where they die, are then buried clandestinely.
Against international convention
This, however, goes against international convention. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Mandela rules, named after former South African President Nelson Mandela, is an international guide on the treatment of prisoners that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.
Section 44 of these rules (Notification of death, illness, transfer, etc) states that “upon the death or serious illness of, or serious injury to a prisoner, or his removal to an institution for the treatment of mental affections, the Director shall at once inform the spouse, if the prisoner is married, or the nearest relative and shall, in any event, inform any other person previously designated by the prisoner”.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has several recommendations when it comes to the death of prisoners in custody. And throughout those recommendations, a common theme is the need for respect and carefulness towards the deceased.
It also notes that “In case of temporary burial, a body tag with indelible marking and a unique code should be attached to the body; and the grave must be marked and recorded carefully. This will help ensure the traceability of the body”.
In addition, the “Body of Principles for the Protection of all persons under any form of detention or imprisonment”, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly resolution 43/173 of December 1988 provides additional recommendations for Governments to follow.
Principle 34 states that “whenever the death or disappearance of a detained or imprisoned person occurs during his detention or imprisonment, an inquiry into the cause of death or disappearance shall be held by a judicial or other authority, either on its own motion or at the instance of a member of the family of such a person or any person who has knowledge of the case. When circumstances so warrant, such an inquiry shall be held on the same procedural basis whenever the death or disappearance occurs shortly after the termination of the detention or imprisonment. The findings of such inquiry or a report thereon shall be made available upon request, unless doing so would jeopardise an ongoing criminal investigation”.