Review of BASS operations depends on `thorough' probe
- President says
Stresses safeguards needed against smuggling

By Mark Ramotar
Guyana Chronicle
August 24, 2001

ANY review or changes in the operations of the Berbice Anti-Smuggling Squad (BASS) following last week's fatal shooting incidents on the Upper Corentyne, depend on thorough investigations under way, President Bharrat Jagdeo said yesterday.

He, however, stressed that strong safeguards were needed in the border region with Suriname against smuggling of arms, drugs, goods and illegal immigrants.

Asked at a news conference about the possibility of suspending the operations of BASS or sending off the officers of the unit involved in the incidents until the intensive investigations are over, Mr. Jagdeo said he would rather await the completion of the probe before making any decisions.

"I would await the investigations to decide on what review we might need to make of the situation there (and) one thing for sure that we will need in Berbice is a strong (institutional) presence along the border given the smuggling of guns, drugs and illegal immigrants," the President said.

The smuggling of guns, drugs and illegal immigrants, in addition to goods, was fast becoming a problem here due to the downturn in the economy of Suriname, he noted.

"There were many cases where we have found drugs on people and guns on we have to safeguard against those issues too (so) it is too early to decide what kind of re-institutional presence we will have (in Berbice)."

The President said he understood that some of the officers of BASS were not currently at the unit's base in Springlands, referring to their physical presence there.

Three men were shot dead last week Tuesday morning in a confrontation after BASS reportedly intercepted a smuggling operation, but relatives have disputed accounts of how they died.

This led to protests outside BASS headquarters which Friday afternoon turned violent and two men were shot dead when demonstrators stoned and targeted the building for several hours.

Three others died later Friday afternoon when an ambulance carrying the wounded to the New Amsterdam Hospital toppled on the Number 70 Village road.

Riot Police were Friday night deployed from Georgetown to maintain order in the area.

The President, at the news conference yesterday, reiterated his assurances to the relatives of those who died in the incidents that a thorough probe will be conducted and that they themselves will be afforded the opportunity to assist and cooperate in the investigations.

Mr. Jagdeo noted that when he met the relatives at his office in Georgetown Tuesday afternoon, at his request, he also assured that the State will provide assistance to the families of those involved in the ambulance accident.

"I met with the relatives of those who died from the accident and I promised them to cover the funeral expenses and also to meet with them next week (and) set up a small group to meet with them, because some of them have small children and I hope that we will be able to help take care, in some way, of those children."

"I met with the relatives of some of the people who died as a result of the activities on Friday (and) also with the relatives of those who were admitted to the (New Amsterdam Hospital) and I promised them a couple of things...," he added.

The President said he told them he was willing to have a thorough investigation into the incidents.

He, however, said the relatives at that meeting expressed concerns about whether they would be allowed to participate in the investigations.

"...I said yes, that they will be allowed and I would make sure that they have a chance to give their views as to what takes place (because) since I got back I heard about five different versions as to what took place and the only way that I, personally, could get to the truth is to have a thorough investigation of the matter."

According to the President, this is because different persons have given different versions of what took place.

President Jagdeo returned home Monday from Chile where he attended a meeting of the Rio Group.

"I cannot make any assessments now until I have a thorough investigation, the people from BASS, the Police, everyone...", he said.

The President noted that this is what was agreed on during his meeting with the relatives.

He pointed out that the relatives of the three persons who died last week Tuesday did not attend the meeting at his office but said he is "still inclined to meet with that family if they want to".

Azad Bacchus, 41, his son Shazad Bacchus, 15, and his nephew, Faddil Ally, 18, died when they were shot near Azad's home at Swiss Street, Race Course, Springlands after the BASS patrol was reportedly fired on from the mini-bus he and the teenagers and others were in.

President Jagdeo said that based on his understanding, the relatives of the three persons wanted to have a second autopsy on the bodies and they had requested this through the Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana (CIOG).

He said the Government had agreed to a second autopsy but he understood that the relatives may not be interested anymore in this regard.

" the position keeps changing and I gathered that they have taken the bodies from the Police," he added.

"There is going to be a thorough investigation on this matter and I would not speculate at this time and I will not give any positions, one way or the other, until the thorough investigation is completed," President Jagdeo told reporters.

"It is unfortunate, regrettable; any time there is a loss of life it's regrettable (and) you had some young people who died there too and that's even worse," he said.

He also does not see the recent disturbances in, for example, Albion or on the Corentyne Coast as being something "systemic".

The relatives, after the meeting on Tuesday, indicated that they were satisfied with President Jagdeo's response to the situation and they look forward to their second meeting shortly.

Stephen Angel and Saif Ghani were shot dead in the demonstrations outside the BASS base and Janet Bess, Valarie Howard-Alves and Mahendranauth Shamsundar died in the ambulance accident.

In a statement this week, the main Opposition People's National Congress Reform (PNC/R) claimed that BASS has no justification for its existence and the party has since 1997 been demanding that BASS be disbanded.

In the recent circumstances, the PNC/R is calling for the immediate disarming and dismantling of the squad.