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Guyana: Call for fair, independent inquiry into school fire

May 26, 2023
Photo: CMC

CMC – Opposition Leader Aubrey Norton Friday welcomed the Guyana government’s decision to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the events that led to the deaths of 19 students at a fire at the dormitory of a secondary school on Monday.

But Norton said that “such a commission must be independent and comprise persons who have the respect of all stakeholders so that the findings are credible and acceptable to all”.

Addressing Thursday night’s flag raising ceremony, which had been dubbed “Night of Reflection” in memory of the students, President Irfaan Ali told the ceremony held in Lethem, the southern Guyanese town near the border with Brazil, that a probe would determine the next step.

“We are also committed to establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the causes and circumstances of the fire which destroyed the dormitory and to enquire into related issues,” he said.

While he did not indicate how soon the Commission would be established he added “the findings of that inquiry will inform the way forward”.

Earlier this week, the police said that a file would have been presented to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) regarding the findings of their investigations in the fire at the Mahdia Secondary School, 100 miles west of here.

They said that a female student may have played a role in setting the fire to the building that housed female students from Mahdia, Campbelltown, Micobie, El Paso and several other villages in the North Pakaraimas in Region 8.

In a statement, the police said that the investigations had so far “revealed that a female student is suspected of having set the devastating fire because her cellular phone was taken away by the Dorm’s mother and a teacher”.

It said that at the time of the fire, there were 57 female students in the one-flat concrete building measuring about 100 feet by 40 feet, with padlocks on the outside.

The main opposition coalition, A Partnership for National Unity + the Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) had earlier called for an inquiry into one of the country’s worst tragedies, and in his statement, Norton insisted that the terms of reference and “reputable national and international members” should be determined by the government, opposition, and other relevant stakeholders.

“It is crucial that all stakeholders work together in constructing the terms of reference to ensure a truly impartial and comprehensive investigation by the Commission of Inquiry,” he said, adding that such a collaborative effort would ensure a “fair and comprehensive investigation”.

He said the probe should not only determine the specific incident at the Mahdia dormitory but also examine all school dormitories across the country, adding “the aim is to assess whether proper safety standards are in place to guarantee the safety and well-being of our children”.

Norton said that the Commission of Inquiry should also evaluate the structural integrity, fire safety measures, emergency exits, and overall compliance with relevant regulations in these facilities and to recommend changes where necessary, inter alia.

“We have prepared some draft terms of reference that we are prepared to discuss with all stakeholders,” he said, adding the aim is to foster a transparent, inclusive, and thorough inquiry that upholds the principles of transparency, accountability, justice, prevention, and adequate compensation.

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