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Rape cases roil Caribbean island nation

Critics say the quick dismissal of allegations against the prime minister shows an old boys' network at work.

May 25, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

KINGSTOWN, ST. VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES — Rape allegations against Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves have divided this idyllic archipelago beloved by honeymooners, mariners and hikers, with one side decrying what it sees as a culture of indifference toward sexual violence and the other insisting that the charges are politically motivated.

A member of Gonsalves' security detail has told police that the 61-year-old leader raped her Jan. 3 at his Old Montrose mansion, where she was on patrol, stifling her protests and warning her to be quiet because his wife and children were upstairs sleeping.

Gonsalves has denied the accusation, and the district attorney, the prime minister's former law colleague, has dismissed the complaint lodged in Magistrates Court by Constable Michele Andrews. She turned to the court because her police superiors had declined to pursue criminal action against Gonsalves.

Human rights activists and local business leaders allege that Gonsalves has a history of sexual aggression, and women's advocates across the Caribbean have begun organizing support for Andrews, 36, whose identity was disclosed by Gonsalves.

At least four other women claiming to have been sexually assaulted by Gonsalves have come forward since Andrews made her accusation.

The scandal has shed light on political, legal and security networks in the region's fledgling democracies, where loyalties to old school chums and political allies can, critics say, trump the rule of law.

Emery Robertson, one of the four local lawyers who have taken up Andrews' case, says the Caribbean judicial system is lacking in sufficient checks on power. In St. Vincent, for instance, the prime minister also heads the ministries of finance, national security, economic planning and legal affairs, with the civil servants in each beholden to him and his party for their jobs.

"All the stakeholders owe some allegiance to the prime minister," said Sharon Morris-Cummings, another of Andrews' lawyers.

The four lawyers have appealed the dismissal of her case and a second one brought to a regional court by a Canadian alleging another attack. They vow to take the cases, if necessary, to the London Privy Council, which remains the court of last resort for the former British colony.

Human rights and feminist groups have demanded that Gonsalves be prosecuted to send a signal that no one is above the law.

"People are afraid to come forward. The message he's sending is, 'We will discredit you,' " said Peggy Antrobus, a Vincentian living in Barbados who for decades has been at the fore of the Caribbean's tiny women's movement.

Canadian's complaint

Margaret Parsons, a Canadian human rights lawyer of Vincentian descent, charged in her complaint against Gonsalves that she was attacked in January 2003 when she had an appointment with him to discuss plans for constitutional reform in the region. A few minutes into their discussion, she says, he lunged at her, groped her, ripped her blouse and attempted to rape her on his office couch before she was able to break away and flee.

"I remember coming out of the building with my heart pumping. I was enraged. I couldn't believe this happened to me," Parsons recalled in a telephone interview from Toronto. "I didn't know who to turn to. I didn't know who would listen to me."

She returned to Canada, and says she "suffered in silence" -- until Andrews' case shamed and emboldened her to file a complaint in Magistrates Court.

"This is a prime minister, for Pete's sake! He can't continue to act with impunity in such egregious acts," Parsons said. "We're not talking about a parking ticket or a traffic violation; we're talking about the violation of women's bodies."

As happened to Andrews' case, Parsons' complaint was taken over by the director of public prosecutions, R. Colin Williams, a longtime friend of Gonsalves who discontinued the proceedings, a power granted the district attorney-like office but rarely used on such serious allegations.

Williams is a tall, high-spirited man with a thunderous laugh. He defended his decisions to halt the cases against Gonsalves.

"Ralph is a victim of his personality. He has a very informal style," Williams said. "Here they call him Huggingson Kissinger, because he'll greet you with a hug and a kiss."

He said the five incidents to which women have sworn statements were either old or unsubstantiated by physical evidence.

Andrews did not submit a written statement when she told the police superintendent about the alleged attack on the morning of the incident, nor when she contacted the police commissioner the next day, he said. Andrews says that both told her to go home and calm down, and that she was assured they would investigate and contact her when they needed information.

To the allegations of a 43-year-old woman who testified that she was raped by Gonsalves when she was an 18-year-old job applicant at his office, Williams bellowed with amusement, "That was more than 20 years ago, man!"

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