CROCHU, Grenada – Hundreds of people are expected to cram a church in Grenada today for the funeral of a man who died in police custody.
The death of Oscar Bartholomew, who was visiting his homeland from Toronto over Christmas, has evoked outrage and sympathy.
As a result, his funeral in the hamlet of Crochu has garnered widespread attention throughout the tiny country.
It has also highlighted claims from those who say Grenada suffers from a systemic problem with poorly trained and poorly disciplined police.
Five officers are charged with manslaughter and it’s expected they will be released on bail on Friday.
While some Grenadians reject suggestions that police brutality is endemic, many others say there are long-standing problems.
They say police — sometimes when drunk or not in uniform — all too often mete out their own version of justice, and nothing is done about it.
“Even if they felt something warranted arresting him, they should not have taken it to that extent,” his cousin Trevor Bartholomew said.
“One hopes that out of this, some light will be shed on the whole aspect of police brutality.”
Even one of the defence lawyers involved, Canadian-trained Anslem Clouden, concedes there are serious problems that need addressing.
He has been pressing for a joint Canada-Grenada inquiry but there’s no indication the government here is contemplating one.
On Sunday, local politician Michael Church also weighed in, urging the prime minister to order an investigation into all allegations of police brutality over the past two or three years.
About 110,000 people live on Grenada, a lush tropical island known for its native warmth and tourist resorts, along with a subsistence way of life for many residents.
Bartholomew’s death occurred when his wife Dolette Cyr Bartholomew, a Quebecer, went into the police station to use the washroom on Boxing Day.
An altercation ensued when he bear-hugged a policewoman he believed was someone he knew, witnesses have said.
It was part of his warm, friendly style, his family said.
“Everybody know Oscar,” his distraught mother Andrianne Bartholomew said, moving her hands in a wide, sweeping gesture.
“Oscar good boy. Oscar not violent.”
Clouden said Bartholomew tried to kick an officer and resisted arrest, prompting police to handcuff him and bind his ankles.
But troubling questions remain about the events.
Some have made the unverified claim police emptied the cells before they beat Bartholomew so there would be no witnesses.
Also, as some witnesses allege, did Bartholomew try to bite an officer, and did police tape his mouth shut?
His mother and other members of his extended family, along with supporters, called in vain for murder charges against the officers involved, who have yet to be tried or enter pleas.
If convicted of manslaughter, they face a maximum 15 years in prison.
Many Grenadians see the entire affair as a terrible tragedy for everyone involved.
Some wonder whether underlying tensions between those who live on Grenada and visiting Grenadians who live abroad — derisively referred to as JCBs or Just Come Backs — played a role.
Still, many said they hoped the incident would not tarnish the “spice island’s” image, especially at a time when the mainstay of tourism has taken a hit because of the global economic downturn.
“We are deeply sorry for what happened but there is nothing you can do,” said Errol McMeo, Bartholomew’s godfather.
“Grenada is a beautiful place but things happen.”