Behind the white sand veneer lays a nation whose legal system is characterized by flagrant abuses of human rights.
Mauritius, a remote African island nation roughly 500 miles east of Madagascar, is certainly not a household name or an immediate travel destination in the United States. Far off the radar of American travelers, the collection of islands has recently jumpstarted a campaign to promote tourism, flaunting its tropical situation and numerous virgin beaches in an attempt to brand itself as Africa’s hidden gem. But it seems there might be more than one reason why the country’s sun-kissed shoreline is markedly off the beaten path.
Behind the white sand veneer lays a nation whose legal system is characterized by flagrant abuses of human rights. The US Department of State’s 2013 Mauritius Human Rights Report cites “security force abuse of suspects and detainees, arbitrary arrests, and prison overcrowding” as principal issues in this regard, and the country has made headlines in recent years over a number a high-profile cases involving what has been described as an “apartheid-style” penal code.
Arbitrary arrests are not uncommon and are often carried out with little to no repercussion for security forces. Add to this an overzealous, almost medieval drug policy, and one has a recipe for statutory disaster. In 2010, just one year after voting in favor of the UN moratorium on the use of the death penalty, Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam called for the reinstatement of capital punishment for drug offenses. To the shock of the international community and harm-reduction NGOs, Ramgoolam proposed the inclusion of Subutex—a prescription drug used to treat opioid dependence—in the class of drugs whose importation could carry the death penalty, warning visitors, “If you cannot live without Subutex, do not come to Mauritius.”
The country’s bizarre drug policy—travelers carrying medications bearing legitimate prescriptions are treated as drug traffickers in the absence of written “authorization” from the prescribing doctor—follows an established pattern of arbitrary and outdated laws. Examples include the illegality of possession of cigarette papers and a blatantly discriminatory provision in the Mauritian Criminal Code classifying sodomy as an “indecent act” punishable by imprisonment.
Among the cases that have highlighted the fatuity of the country’s legal system is that of Sandrine Carrère, a French tourist who has filed a civil suit against the Mauritian government for “arbitrary arrest and detention.”
In 2002, Carrère was stopped by police upon arriving in the capital of Port Louis. She contests that she was stopped based solely on the appearance of her Rastafarian boyfriend, which the arresting officer later confirmed. Carrère was subjected to a search, wherein police found on her person several packets of cigarettes and two tablets of Di-Antalvic, an anti-inflammatory analgesic drug for which she had a prescription. On the basis of this “contraband”, Carrère was forced to strip naked and undergo an invasive full body search, carried out by officers “using filthy language.”
Though the search proved fruitless, Carrère was placed under “provisional arrest,” a unique practice sanctioned by the country’s penal code that allows anyone suspected of a crime to be detained—sometimes for up to two years—before ever being charged. After being interrogated twice and having her medication and passport seized, Carrère was eventually summoned to court, where she was absolved, finally being allowed to leave the country nearly two months later.
The case brought attention to the practice of provisionally charging suspects, which drew condemnation from the UK Mission to the UN during Mauritius’ Universal Periodic Review in 2013 and has been called a “weapon of repression.” Indeed, the maxim of “innocent until proven guilty” seems not to apply in Mauritius, where such a draconian law allows defendants to languish in the country’s notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary prisons before even being formally charged.
Such is the case of South African businessman, Peter Wayne Roberts, who was “provisionally charged” in the December 2014 death of his girlfriend, Lee-Ann Palmarozza, during a vacation at the Anahita resort on Mauritius’ eastern shore. Roberts maintains his innocence, reporting that he noticed Palmarozza’s absence from the couple’s villa after taking a shower on the night of December 28. Upon notifying resort officials, he and several security guards began searching for Palmarozza, eventually finding her body floating face down in the resort’s pool.
In early January 2015, local police began an ongoing investigation and notwithstanding that forensic reports were made available to them during January, they failed to provide the defence with copies thereof. The defence counsel was forced to approach the Supreme Court of Mauritius for an order that samples obtained from the deceased at autopsy were provided to the defence team for independent analysis in South Africa. A court order was granted on 3 June 2015 but to date the Mauritian prosecution remains in contempt of the order. The defendant has now been forced to bring a further application to hold the State in contempt which application is set to be heard on 24 September 2015. This is a clear and flagrant disregard for an order granted by the Supreme Court of Mauritius.
Although a lack of evidence meant that the defendant was yet to be formally charged, he was forced to remain in detention in Mauritius since January and has been subjected to intimidation and harassment by the police. He has subsequently and on 10 September 2015 been charged on a reduced count of manslaughter. The defence counsel, in the bail application, presented possible scenarios favourable to the defendant, which went unchallenged. The case has “cast a spotlight on the country’s bizarre legal system,” according to The Times of South Africa.
Roberts’ case, like that of Carrère, highlights the substantial faults in Mauritian law and should generate trepidation to tourists and business investor alike in South Africa, the United Kingdom and indeed the United States; and perhaps the onus falls to those governments to issue broader Travel Advisory warnings to provide information and protect their citizenries from making an ill-informed decision that would unjustifiably result in immediate yet arbitrary imprisonment
By ignoring persistent recommendations from the UK to scrap the practice of provisional arrest, by ensuring that security forces may continue to arbitrarily detain citizens with impunity, Mauritius has shown an utter disregard for established principles of due process.
Not to be beguiled by images of palm trees and coconut water, travelers should indeed be wary of visiting Africa’s “hidden gem” so long as its commitment to tourism surpasses its commitment to human rights.