A 15-year-old student accused of deliberately starting a dormitory fire at a girls’ school in Guyana that killed 18 of her schoolmates and a 5-year-old boy was charged Monday as an adult with 19 counts of murder.
The defendant virtually appeared at a hearing in a court south of the capital, Georgetown, and was ordered to be held in custody pending further prosecution.
Investigators accused the girl, who has not been identified, of starting the fire at Mahdia Secondary School in anger with the administrator over the confiscation of her mobile phone. The government college serves remote indigenous villages in the southwest of the country.
The student was not allowed to file a charge brief and will appear in court again on July 5, when state and defense attorneys indicate whether they are ready to start a pretrial. If found guilty, the student could face life in prison.
The fire at Mahida’s school, about 200 miles southwest of Georgetown, started just before midnight on May 21. All five doors were locked with keys from the inside, officials said. There were 57 female students in the wood and concrete dormitory when the fire engulfed the building in the town of Mahdia. Rescuers extracted at least 20 students from the building, fortified with iron grates.
More than two dozen students were injured. One of the seriously injured students was airlifted to a New York hospital to be treated by a specialist, but most were released.
Officials initially said the suspect, who was among the injured, was 14 years old. However, fire officials who interviewed her said he was 15 years old, which, if accurate, led to the charge as an adult.
“We’ve interviewed her and she hasn’t admitted to anything,” Deputy Fire Chief Dwayne Scotland said earlier.
Gerald Gouveia, the national security adviser to Guyana’s President Mohamed Irfaan Ali, said the dormitory manager, or house mother, had locked all the doors to prevent female students, aged 12 to 18 , to sneak out to mingle with adult males in Mahdia, a gold and diamond mining town.
The administrator panicked and fumbled with keys as flames swept through the building, they said. Officials had previously identified the dead 5-year-old as his son, according to local news reports.
Mr. Ali, senior Western officials and diplomats had planned to head to Mahdia. Last week, the government held a candlelight vigil for the dead and wounded in Georgetown. Mr Ali said he had assigned a government minister to each of the affected families to provide any assistance they might need.
Among those present were some of the injured students who had been taken to a Georgetown hospital but were well enough to be released by Tuesday evening. Many wept, heads bowed, faces covered, as a moment of silence was observed for the victims.
Beverley Alert, an opposition lawyer, slammed the government for bringing surviving victims to the wake for what she described as a show “to score cheap political points”.
In a social media post, she also said: “These girls have gone through great trauma. They need to be with their families.”