The Mandela Avenue killings

Stabroek News
July 29, 2001

At around 5:45 last Thursday morning, the Special Target Squad killed three men at the junction of Mandela Avenue and the Industrial Estate road. In one of their customarily terse press releases issued later that same day, the police claimed that a party on patrol in the Industrial Site area had observed a vehicle with partially obscured number plates. Then came the portion of the statement which most Guyanese, mutatis mutandis, could recite in their sleep, they have heard it so often. "As the ranks were attempting to stop the vehicle," it said, "three men jumped out and fired shots at the Police Party causing them to take evasive action.

"During the confrontation, the vehicle sped away from the scene. The Police returned fire and three men were fatally shot."

Nothing new there, the cynical citizen might mutter. But this time, there is something new. This time there are independent adult eyewitnesses who have given another version of events entirely. No reliance on relatives' testimony this time around; no dependence on inferences; no resort to child witnesses whose evidence might have to be treated with caution. This time there was not one, but several spectators other than the police who actually saw the three men being shot.

The first thing to be noted is that their stories are broadly consistent with one another, and the second thing is, that those to whom Stabroek News spoke did not know each other. When this newspaper arrived on the scene on the first occasion, approximately 20 minutes or so after the killings, we collected similar accounts from separate, credible witnesses who had simply had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What they all agree on was that no shots were fired by the men who were killed. They said that when their vehicle stopped after being chased by the police, the man in the back passenger seat on the left was ordered out by members of the squad. He emerged with his hands behind his head, and backed up against a stall on the western side of the road where an officer held him at gunpoint.

In the meantime, the other two men emerged from the vehicle at the behest of the police, and were put to lie face down on the road. A bag was also removed from the car, whose contents - weapons - onlookers saw when the police opened it on the spot.

After lifting the shirt of the man standing against the stall, the officer found a gun which he retrieved. Then, say eyewitnesses, he took one or two steps back and shot the man. Thereafter the other officers started firing too, and the two men lying on the road were shot in the back where they lay.

Despite the fact that the release from headquarters states that the police were "in search of the vehicle that fled the scene," some eyewitnesses said that they heard the police telling the driver to leave.

There is no reconciling this account with the police press statement. One or the other must be incorrect. And the presumption of accuracy on this occasion is not on the side of the Black Clothes police. Given the kind of firearms which the squad found and which included a Beretta sub-machine gun, how come none of the officers was injured in the supposed exchange of fire?

And are we to believe that when the men jumped out of their vehicle to shoot at the police, in addition to the weapons they were carrying in their hands they also carried: "Four pairs of surgical gloves, 2 hammers, 2 stocking masks, wigs and several items of clothing"? The release says that these things were recovered "at the scene." But since it also alleges that the vehicle involved in the incident "sped away" during the "confrontation," just where at the scene were they located?

It is clear that the men who were shot were in possession of weapons, and appearances suggest that their intentions were anything but honest. That, however, has no bearing on this case insofar as they had already been immobilised by the officers and the one on the stall disarmed. They could have and should have been taken into custody, charged and placed before the courts.

In any other country which took itself seriously as a democracy and which purported to follow the rule of law, this would have caused a scandal, and the Government would have had to have made a statement by now. They would also have had to have promised an independent enquiry, not one conducted by the police themselves.

The administration has been reluctant to listen to any criticism of the Special Target Squad on previous occasions, citing the danger in which officers are frequently placed when dealing with armed criminals, and suggesting that it is all the PNC creating hot air for political reasons. When there is the appearance of an execution squad operating from within the force, however, PNC motives in highlighting the issue are neither here nor there; a genuine problem exists whatever the PNC says or does not say.

And while in general it is true that the police perform a dangerous job, often very courageously as in the case of Mr Collin Frazer, it must be repeated that in this particular instance eyewitnesses are alleging that the men were killed after they had been rendered impotent by the police on the scene. If that does not warrant an inquiry, then what on earth does? The only problem is that witnesses will be terrified to come forward and identify themselves, for fear of what might happen to them. Nevertheless, forensic evidence at least should establish who was shot where.

No, this one is not going to go away. If the Government refuses to act in this instance, it will open itself to the accusation that it is condoning the extra-judicial route for dealing with the crime problem, rather than confronting the systemic problems within the police force and the justice system concerning which it commissioned reports. Surely all the recommendations contained in those reports are not to go to waste? Surely they were not intended to be treated as cosmetic? And what about our avowed commitment to human rights? Is that cosmetic too?

The nation waits with interest to hear what the administration has to say after these latest killings.