A 15-year-old student accused of deliberately setting a fire in a girl’s school dormitory in Guyana that killed 18 of her schoolmates and a 5-year-old boy was charged on Monday as an adult with 19 counts of murder.
The defendant appeared virtually at a hearing in a court south of the capital, Georgetown, and she was ordered held in custody pending further court proceedings.
Investigators accused the girl, who was not identified, of igniting the blaze at Mahdia Secondary School in anger with the administrator over the confiscation of her cellphone. The government boarding school serves remote Indigenous villages in the country’s southwest.
The student was not allowed to enter a plea to the charges and will make a second court appearance on July 5, when state and defense lawyers will indicate whether they are ready to start a preliminary trial. If found guilty, the student could face life in prison.
The fire at the school in Mahida, about 200 miles southwest of Georgetown, began shortly before midnight on May 21. All five doors were locked with keys from the inside, officials said. There were 57 female students in the wooden, concrete dorm when the fire tore through the building in Mahdia township. Rescuers pulled at least 20 students from the building, which was fortified with iron grills.
More than two dozen students were injured. One of the critically injured students has been flown to a New York hospital for treatment by a specialist, but most have been discharged.
Officials originally said the suspect, who was among the injured, was 14. However, fire service officials who interviewed her maintained she was 15, which — if accurate — led to the indictment as an adult.
“We have interviewed her, and she admitted to nothing,” Deputy Fire Chief Dwayne Scotland previously said.
Gerald Gouveia, the national security adviser to Guyana’s president, Mohamed Irfaan Ali, has said that the dorm’s administrator, or house mother, locked all the doors to prevent the female students, ages 12 to 18, from sneaking out to socialize with adult males in Mahdia, a gold and diamond mining town.
The administrator panicked and fumbled with the keys as the blaze raced through the building, they said. Officials previously identified the 5-year-boy who died as her son, according to local news outlets.
Mr. Ali, senior officials and Western diplomats had planned to head to Mahdia. Last week, the government held a candlelight vigil for the dead and injured 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 attending were some of the injured students who had been taken to a hospital in Georgetown but were well enough to be discharged by Tuesday evening. Many wept, heads bent over, faces covered, as a moment’s silence was observed for the victims.
Beverley Alert, an opposition lawmaker, denounced the government for bringing the surviving victims to the vigil for what she described as a spectacle “to score cheap political points.”
In a social media post, she also said: “These girls suffered great trauma. They need to be with their families.”
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