A question of trust

Stabroek News
August 19, 2001

The public might be forgiven for thinking that of all the law enforcement agencies in the country only the Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit, familiarly known by its acronym, CANU, has any idea about how to investigate a crime and apprehend suspects without anyone landing up in the morgue in the process. Unfortunately, however, it is not CANU's investigative methods which are setting the trend these days, it is those of the Target Special Squad.

In a novel development we now have the Berbice Anti-Smuggling Squad (BASS) getting into the picture by killing three people in the Corentyne - one of them a minor - in questionable circumstances. True to form, the official versions differ in material respects from those of witnesses. As a matter of fact, it is possible that even the official accounts are not identical, if the report in the Mirror of August 18-19 headlined "BASS Responds To Attacks In East Berbice" is indeed the sanctioned BASS version. If it is, then it brings into question some facts in the first press release on the killings issued by the police.

Be all that as it may, on this occasion the Government lost no time in acting, and on Thursday, Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj announced that an enquiry was being held into the deaths, and that senior officers had travelled to Berbice to conduct the investigations. He was reported as saying that after the statements had been collected and the inquiry completed, the file would be forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions for "appropriate action and advice."

At his Friday press conference Dr Luncheon told the media that the Government wanted to identify with Minister Gajraj and the Ministry of Home Affairs for issuing instructions which were "entirely expected and positive." Not surprisingly he was asked why the same approach had not been adopted for the Mandela avenue killings, when the Target Special Squad shot three men allegedly in cold blood in the sight of eye-witnesses. The reason, he replied, was that the one instance involved the police, and the other involved BASS, which was not a civilian law enforcement agency, but rather an agency which came under the Guyana Revenue Authority. As such, the police would be required to investigate killings by its members. In addition, he said, the police force had established procedures which were followed when their members discharged firearms resulting in death.

That is true enough as far as it goes, but it still does not explain why the Government resisted the setting up of a special enquiry into the Mandela avenue case, rather than allowing the police to investigate themselves as usual. Certainly, after a long period of silence the Government eventually acceded to a coroner's inquest, although there is no great likelihood that much will come of it.

The cause of the administration's apparent reluctance to follow the route of a special enquiry may possibly be indicated in a statement from Dr Luncheon who said that the two incidents (i.e. Corentyne and Mandela) were also distinguished by the fact that in Mandela avenue the police "were involved in a shoot-out with those individuals." In other words, he is refusing to entertain any possibility that the witnesses, who have spoken to the media, but have declined to identify themselves to the police, might be telling the truth when they say that there was no exchange of gunfire and that the police alone did the shooting.

This impression is reinforced by Minister Gajraj who mused about "The issue of eyewitnesses [being] a dangerous phenomenon developing." Anyone could claim to be an eyewitness, he said, and unless such witnesses could be produced, "it would be a dangerous street we're going up." All of this conveniently ignores the fact, of course, that the Black Clothes police have a pattern of killings associated with their name which have all the aspects of being extra-judicial in nature. It also conveniently ignores the fact that individuals in the squad have been accused of assaulting members of the public in the past, and on another occasion have even been caught on camera kicking them. In addition it conveniently ignores the fact that the reputation of the Target Special Squad is so unsavoury that no ordinary citizen with a tale to tell about its activities would ever risk his or her safety coming forward.

So who do Dr Luncheon and Minister Gajraj really think they're fooling? The bottom line of the story is that no one trusts the Black Clothes police, and in the absence of credible arrangements for the protection of witnesses, the coroner's inquest into the deaths of the Mandela avenue three is unlikely to cast doubt on the police version of events. It might be noted that in the case of the Corentyne killings in contrast, witnesses are far more likely to present themselves. Although there were no independent spectators to the actual shootings, the events which eventually led to the deaths of Azad Bacchus, his son and his nephew, spanned time and location, for each stage of which there are different witnesses. Members of the family of the dead men have already gone on record, and with safety in numbers it is possible that others too may be prepared to follow suit.

The only conclusion that the public can come to is that the Government does not want to find out the truth when allegations are made against members of the police force. Like Nelson, it has turned its blind eye to the situation, and by so doing it is condoning extra-judicial killing. So let it be repeated yet again: illegal killings by law enforcement will not solve a crime situation. Reform of the police force and the judicial system, on the other hand, might. So why won't the administration act?

We certainly do not want to end up like Jamaica which over the last ten years has had an average of 140 extra-judicial killings committed by the Jamaican Constabulary Force (JCF) per annum, and which, it might be added, still has a crime problem far more serious than that of Guyana. In a familiar echo, the citizens who die at the hands of the JCF are invariably killed in what the police maintain is a 'shoot-out.'

In an Amnesty International Report on the Jamaican situation dating from April this year, it is stated: "Amnesty International believes that the problems of lack of public trust in the police and the JCF's inability to prevent violent crime are closely related. The authorities' repeated calls for the public to aid the police will not be heeded if the police continue to beat and kill with impunity."

Let Dr Luncheon and Minister Gajraj erase the letters 'JCF' from this extract, and substitute the acronym 'GPF' instead.