Probe of BASS killings Editorial
Stabroek News
December 31, 2001

In August of this year, the Corentyne erupted in fury after three men - including the notorious Azad Bacchus - were shot dead by the Berbice Anti-Smuggling Squad (BASS) under highly controversial circumstances. Several days later, the situation worsened when BASS shot two more men dead after its headquarters came under siege from a riled up crowd. Several others were injured and the situation took a turn for the worse after three other persons died the same day when an ambulance transporting some of the wounded overturned.

All told, eight persons died as a result of the mayhem and convolution, the magnitude of which Berbice had not seen for some time.

Shortly after, Home Affairs Minister Gajraj assured that an investigation would be conducted into the deaths of Bacchus and his two young relatives as was statutorily required. The deaths of the other two men would also presumably have come under this part of the probe. When he returned from a trip abroad, President Jagdeo assured that BASS' operations would be reviewed after he received the results of the probe and he also said that the relatives of the dead would be able to participate in the investigations. Whether the latter was achieved is difficult to say.

Moreover, four months later and as the year wanes, the country - and Berbicians in general - are no closer to finding out what exactly happened during that fateful August week. More complex disasters have been investigated and deliberated on elsewhere in a matter of days. We just don't seem to see these probes as exigent or are unable to efficiently complete them.

The latest position as revealed by Minister Gajraj is that the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is to determine whether "excessive" force was used by BASS in the deaths of the five men. If excessive force was used those who fired would be culpable in the deaths. This is an important part of the equation but is not the sum of all the worries that Berbicians have about the August incidents.

First, the investigation was conducted by the police force - BASS' sister law enforcement agency - in the traditional manner and referred to the DPP's Chambers for evaluation. Confidence in this process will not be high as there is always a concern that the code of silence among law enforcement agencies could inhibit a full ventilation of the issues at stake. At this point, considering the special circumstances of the August uprising, the police's report should have been made available to Minister Gajraj and President Jagdeo for their review. Experts from outside of the police should also have had a look at this to be satisfied that it was properly conducted.

Secondly, the Berbicians who lost relatives and suffered severe pain want answers on why the situation rapidly escalated into the disaster it was. It doesn't appear as if the probe catered for this.

Ultimately, Berbicians want to know the truth about the killing of Azad Bacchus and his son and nephew. Was Bacchus' son beaten after he was held for smuggling plastic bags? What exactly happened at the hospital when Azad Bacchus outrageously raided it? Who fired shots first? Where exactly did the trio die? Was it true that the state of their bodies indicated that they had been beaten on the foreshore before being shot? What does the second post-mortem report on the bodies indicate?

Did the BASS men follow the prescribed procedures to quell the disturbance outside their headquarters? Did they have to use guns? Who gave the instruction to fire? Why weren't the police able to apprehend how dangerous the situation was and take immediate steps to defuse it? These are only a few of the many questions that need to be answered over the Berbice events. They also fit appropriately into the ongoing national debate about alleged police executions and whether the time has not arrived for the government to entrust these inquiries to an impartial body devoid of police participation and influence.

The investigation should also serve as a lightning rod for a debate on the wisdom of ancillary law enforcement agencies such as BASS as these duplicate police functions and don't often march to the tune of standard operating procedures.

The drift in the BASS investigation must not be allowed to continue and the police, the DPP and the government must do their best to present a detailed report to the public taking into account all of the grave questions that arose over the August of discontent on the Corentyne.