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Walton-Desir worried over families’ difficulty in pursuing claims for Mahdia dormitory tragedy

Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 July 2023, 7:49 by Denis Chabrol

Ms. Amanza Walton-Desir

Opposition parliamentarian Amanza Walton-Desir on Monday said she was concerned that the agreement with surviving families of the 20 children, who were burnt to death in the Mahdia Secondary School’s dormitory, now means that it would be very tough to obtain compensation from the State.

“When you look at the text of the agreement, what they have essentially asked these families to sign is that for $5 million dollars, you would waive your right to any future claim for any injuries resulting from this unfortunate incident,” she said in a video statement.

The agreement, in part, states that, “the Government of Guyana hereby offers to the parent/guardian of the victim the sum of five million dollars ($5,000,000) as a form of financial assistance which shall constitute a settlement of all claims and causes of actions on account of all injuries resulting in death and not resulting in death, that resulted from the fire of the 21st May2023 at the Mahdia Secondary School Dormitory.”

The agreement further removes any liability any party to the agreement caused by, arising from, or connected to, the fire of the 21st of May 2023 at the Mahdia Secondary School Dormitory. The agreement sees the signatories as voluntarily accepting for the purpose of making a compromise and settlement of all potential claims for liability, injury, loss and damage, concerning the event

In an interaction with a government information  officer, Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Anil Nandlall did not address that specific point but guardedly left the door open to a decision by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the May 21, 2023 incident that is yet to be empanelled. He said much depended on the Terms of Reference for that inquiry

He said two translators, Region 8 Vice Chairman, Regional Executive Officer, and two social workers of the Ministry of Social Services engaged the relatives and families individually and they were allowed to ask questions. “The explanations were done in a very open way,” he said. He said the GY$5 million per family was not compensation or an effort to return the child, heal injuries or psychological trauma. “This is not a compensation because government really cant and it will be insensitive to think that the govt can compensate for the tremendous loss, and  suffering and anguish that  those people went through,” he said.

But Ms Walton-Desir said government was indebted to the surviving families to compensate them for negligence that led to the gruesome death of their children. “These students died whilst in the care and custody of the State and so the State has not been doing a favour to the family. These families left their children in the care of the State trusting that they would be taken care of,” the Attorney-at-Law said.

Insisting that a Commission of Inquiry into the deadly fire in the shortest possible time was the only decent approach, she accused government of getting the surviving families to sign the agreements  because of evidence in the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report on Guyana’s dormitories and a Guyana Fire Service report. “The government has to be insulated because they know, they are aware that they failed, that their officers failed, that that dormitory was flagged by the fire service as being a fire hazard,” she said.

She feared that the children’s families would eventually have to engage in legal battles to secure compensation. “It would appear to me at first blush that the terms of this agreement preclude them from proceeding further  unless, of course, they can make certain legal arguments that the inequality of the bargaining power at the time, the unconscionable nature of the agreement would allow them to have it waived but that is an unnecessary battle that they will have to fight,” she said.

The Attorney General described the GY$5 million per family as “simply one installment of assistance” but he did not definitively state that the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Inquiry would provide for the award of damages. “If the Terms of Reference mandates it, will take into account all the matters that it is obliged to do by virtue of those terms of reference which may include reviewing all the help and financial assistance that the government may have given and many, many other matters that have nothing to with this agreement, this engagement we have had with the family,” he said.

Mr Nandlall denied that government attempted to keep the agreements secret although it was only after the news story broke on Monday government offered any information. “The reason why this exercise has not been made public is because not a single cent has been paid and the exercise is ongoing,”  unbudgeted monies and will have to be disclosed to the National Assembly and other fora,” he said.

He said the Guyana government was not required to provide assistance. “The government did not have to offer a cent in financial assistance. The fact is that we have done it and not because anyone pressured us to do it because we felt that it is the least that could have been done and can be done in the circumstances having regard to the prevailing facts.

A female student, who was residing at the dormitory, has been charged with 20 counts of murder.

Investigators said the girl made good on a threat to burn the dormitory after the house mother and a teacher seized her phone that she had used to communicate with an adult male.

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