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Will police officer's manslaughter trial bring greater accountability in Caribbean?

Trinidad has set a date for the trial of a police officer accused of killing a civilian in 2003 – a rarity in the Caribbean, where cops under pressure to stop crime are usually not charged for on-the-job slayings.

By Erline AndrewsContributor / November 17, 2011

Sharon Albarado says she still seeks justice for the killing of her husband, Leroy, by police in 2003.

Erline Andrews

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Port of Spain, Trinidad

Sharon Albarado came away from a recent phone call shedding tears of relief. She'd just been told that the police officer responsible for her husband Leroy's death in 2003 was finally going to be put on trial for manslaughter.

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The trial, as well as recent murder charges against seven police officers for the killing of one man and two women, are rare occurrences both in Trinidad and Tobago and across the English-speaking Caribbean, where the number of civilian deaths at the hands of police has been increasing amid skyrocketing crime and public pressure for the police to curb it.

"There is both in the public and among the police the idea that human rights are incompatible with the fight against crime," says Chiara Liguori, an Amnesty International researcher. "On the contrary, the more you show force and brutalize the society, the more crime is likely to go up."

A rise in police killings of civilians

The number of police killings in Amnesty International's annual reports on Trinidad and Tobago has gone from being in the single digits to an average of 40 per year. The police often say the victims were criminals who engaged them in shootouts. But in many cases, witnesses and relatives claim that victims were law-abiding and unarmed, killed by police officers quick to use force. Some argue that was the scenario in July when police officers, now charged with murder, shot and killed a man and two women as they drove not far from their home in rural Trinidad.

It will be a significant event here when Police Constable Kerry Samad goes on trial for the unlawful killing of Leroy Albarado, a retired pipe fitter with no criminal record.

Mrs. Albarado says Mr. Samad climbed over the fence into the Albarados' backyard where they were relaxing late one night with handymen who had been working on the roof of their modest home. Albarado says that Samad ordered everyone not to move and shot Leroy, who was unarmed, when he stood up. Samad claimed he accidentally fired his gun when he tripped and fell. Samad's case comes up for hearing in January.

A guilty verdict would not ease the pain, says Albarado, but it would bring some relief. "You will be a little satisfied that somebody was brought to justice for doing a wrong," she says. But justice has been rare for the more than 200 people shot and killed by on-duty police officers within the past decade in Trinidad and Tobago.

And the phenomenon of questionable police killings is not limited to Trinidad and Tobago. Jamaica has seen the most such killings: 253 in the last year alone, giving the island possibly the highest rate per capita of police killings in the world, according to human rights group Jamaicans for Justice. And international rights organizations are becoming concerned about possible extra-judicial executions in other countries in the seemingly peaceful region. Annual reports have contained warnings on the situation in Guyana, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, and Belize as well.

Obstacles to the courtroom

"There hardly ever is a consequence" to police killings says Attorney Wayne Sturge, who has represented both police officers and victims in police-shooting cases. "The police behave as if they know that either the investigation wouldn't be thorough; it would take a number of years and people would lose interest; or, even if they investigate, it would end up ... adjourned several times, appealed, or thrown out."

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