Legal System and Civil Rights
The three-tiered judicial system consists of magistrates' or small claims courts, the Supreme (or trial) Court, and the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the Supreme Court in both civil and criminal cases. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction of first instance as well as acting as an appeals court from the magistrates' courts. The system is based on English common law, with influences of the Napoleonic Code (e.g., in tort and contract matters), and customary law. Criminal cases are heard in magistrates' courts or the Supreme Court depending on the seriousness of the charge. Juries are called only in cases of murder or treason. Normal legal protections are extended to defendants. They include public trials, the right of the accused to be present, and the accused's right to confront witnesses, to appeal, to qualify for bail in most cases, and to be represented by counsel, on a pro bono basis if indigent. Judges from other Commonwealth countries--mostly African or Asian--are employed on a contract basis. Judges remain independent from influence by the executive in spite of occasional government pressure.
Under the penal code, a detained person must be brought before a magistrate within forty-eight hours. Before repeal of the Public Security Act in 1992, persons could be detained indefinitely on security charges. The president still has broad personal powers to detain persons regarded as security threats. Since 1989 only a few brief detentions have been reported, all under the Public Security Act.
Much progress in human rights has occurred since political freedoms were restored in 1992. Both military and police engaged in physical harassment of members of opposition parties before the 1992 election of constitutional delegates, but later elections were free of intimidation. The government's control of jobs, housing, and land enables it to reward supporters and discourage dissent. Legislation still on the books brings the risk of prosecution and imprisonment for publishing defamatory material against the president or for publishing or possessing publications banned by the government for security reasons. The close association of the armed forces with the SPPF represents a further threat to the full exercise of political rights. In an attempt to mollify domestic and foreign critics, René removed the deputy secretary general of the SPPF as chief of staff of the defense forces in 1992.
The number of crimes and other offenses reported in 1990 was 4,564, of which 35 percent involved violations of traffic ordinances. Thefts, burglaries, housebreaking, and other forms of stealing made up most of the remaining 1,559 offenses. There were five cases of homicide; thirteen cases of rape and indecent assault; 634 aggravated or common assaults; 287 offenses against property such as trespass and arson; and 403 incidents of disorderly conduct. The general trend appears to be downward, although the sharpest decline is in vehicular offenses. Theft in tourist hotels is said to be on the rise. Juvenile delinquency-- linked to boredom and isolation--is a growing problem.
Official statistics are not available on sentencing or the prison population. The United States Department of State described living conditions at the Police Bay prison as spartan but said that in 1993 both SPPF and opposition members drafting the constitution had been allowed, to visit and found conditions satisfactory. Weekly family visits are allowed, and inmates have access to printed materials.
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