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Suriname Facing Past Human Rights Violations:

The Gangaram-Panday Case

by Claudia Martin and Françoise Roth*

The first issue of The Human Rights Brief featured an article on the decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Court) in the Aloeboetoe et al. case involving the 1987 murder of seven Saramaca Maroon men by the former Surinamese military regime. [See Suriname Faces Past Human Rights Violations in the Spring 1994 issue of The Brief.] After Suriname conceded liability, the Court considered the social structure of the Saramaca tribe in determining the compensation to be paid to the survivors of the victims.

A subsequent decision by the Court, also involving human rights abuses in Suriname, was rendered on January 21, 1994. The Gangaram-Panday case entailed the arbitrary detention of Surinamese national, Choeramoenipersad Gangaram-Panday, by the former government's military police and his subsequent death. The police reported that Gangaram had hung himself while in custody a few days following his arrest.

The petitioners in both the Aloeboetoe and Gangaram-Panday cases were represented before the Court by Professor Claudio Grossman, co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and acting dean of the Washington College of Law, The American University.

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (the Commission) submitted the case to the Court on August 27, 1990. The Commission contended that Suriname was responsible for violating several sections of the American Convention on Human Rights, in pertinent part, Article 1 (obligation to respect rights), 2 (domestic legal effects), 4 (right to life), 5 (right to humane treatment), 7 (right to personal liberty), and 25 (right to judicial protection). It requested the Court to award just compensation to the victim's next of kin.

The Commission members were split four to three on the issue of the Commission's claim that facts proven before the Commission should be given conclusive effect by the Court. This marked the first time that the Court had been split on a portion of a decision. In accordance with the case law, the majority held that the Court exercised full jurisdiction over all issues relevant to the case. The Court concluded that because it was not an appellate tribunal, it was not restricted by prior decisions of the Commission. Its power to review all questions of fact and law was derived from its character as sole judicial organ in matters concerning the Convention.

On the offer of evidence and the burden of proof, the Court moved away from earlier decisions by requiring a higher degree of proof in evidentiary material and by placing the burden of proof on the Commission. The Court placed the onus probandi on the government only as to the legality of the detention. The failure of the government to produce the evidence necessary for that issue led the Court to presume the irregularity of the detention. Thus, the Court awarded US $10,000 to Gangaram's wife and children as compensation for his illegal detention.

Regarding the allegations of torture, the Court required the Commission to demonstrate by conclusive and convincing presumptions that the victim underwent ill-treatment. The Court determined that testimony by a government witness as to the presence of blood in the victim's scrotum, resulting from a blow applied shortly before the victim's death, did not reach the standard required.

While ruling that there was enough evidence to prove that the victim died by hanging, however, the Court concluded that the Commission did not meet its burden of establishing Suriname's responsibility for the death. The Court considered the two contradictory government autopsies - one concluding that the victim died as a consequence of a violent death, and the other asserting that the death was not violent - as falling below the necessary standard of proof. Based on a presumption in favor of the State, the Court determined that a hanging is by nature a violent death when compared with an ordinary one. Moreover, the Court refused to infer government responsibility for Gangaram's death merely from the fact that the victim was illegally detained.

In a dissenting opinion, three of the judges argued that the State did have an affirmative obligation to protect the life of the victim, especially because of his illegal detention. Indeed, they deemed the right to life as implying not only a duty upon the state to prevent the deprivation of life, but also the obligation to take all the appropriate means to protect and preserve life, regardless of whether the person threatened is detained or not.

This Gangaram-Panday decision is particularly noteworthy in that the Court demanded a higher standard of proof than that required in previous cases. To the extent that this standard becomes established, the Commission may find itself in a difficult position. In the majority of cases considered by the Commission, evidence is generally in the hands of the government. Therefore, reaching the burden of proof required by the Court could prove very difficult. Professor Grossman strongly criticized the Court's decision. He asserted that the burden of proof required by the Court was "impossible to satisfy," particularly as victims' families typically do not have access to the victims' bodies.

* Claudia Martin is a Fellow at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and will complete the LL.M. program at WCL in May of 1994. Françoise Roth is a Legal Associate at the International Human Rights Law Group and a graduate of the WCL LL.M. program.

©Copyright 1994 The Human Rights Brief


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