Attorney-at-law Khemraj Ramjattan, is accusing the Customs and Trade Admin-istration (CTA) of acting in a lawless and unprofessional manner and is calling for an inquiry into the operations of the department.
Ramjattan, who is an MP representing Berbicians, is compiling a list of violations allegedly committed by the CTA including assault, unlawful detention and harassment against businessmen.
Speaking with Stabroek News recently, Ramjattan cited numerous instances in which the CTA was out of order, the latest being the alleged physical assault and harassment of businessman HN Sugrim popularly known as ‘Chiney’ of Crabwood Creek.
Commissioner of the CTA, Lambert Marks could not be contacted by Stabroek News for comment on the numerous allegations even though a message was left with his secretary about the issue. The secretary said Marks had instructions not to speak to the media. The editor of Stabroek News sent a letter to Mr Marks on the 6th March as follows:
“We are working on a report based on an interview with Mr Khemraj Ramjattan, Attorney-at-Law and one of his clients Mr H.N. Sugrim in which a number of allegations are made of unprofessional behaviour by yourself and some of your officers both in regard to Mr Sugrim and other businessmen.
In the interest of fair and balanced reporting we are anxious to have your comments on these allegations and hereby request an interview for that purpose”.
There has been no response to this letter and an interview has not been granted. Sources told Stabroek News that there continues to be widespread smuggling of fuel and other items from Venezuela and other countries and the Customs Department has been under pressure to clamp down and produce results.
Sugrim, who confessed to being a smuggler of food items in the Burnham days, said he had stopped smuggling years ago, after many persons got into the business. He said he had gone into various businesses, including rice and agricultural machinery but lack of payments forced him out of these.
He now has a barge selling sand and stone across the Corentyne river and has ventured into the machinery contracting business to clear land and canals. He has worked with both the Drainage and Irrigation Board and Guysuco and said he plans to grow 5000 acres of cane to supply Guysuco as a private cane farmer.
With the help of his children, he has also constructed a wharf at Canje and bought a boat to ship cement directly to Berbice from Trinidad which will keep the price lower than having it shipped via Georgetown. He said farmers’ produce would be shipped to Trinidad and Barbados. But Sugrim said he is now fed up and is considering leaving Guyana because of what he claims is the harassment from the CTA.
He recalled that in 2001, one of his four boats, the MV Cynthia, was searched by customs officers but no uncustomed goods were found. The captain, after being incommunicado for 13 days, was still charged for being aboard a smuggling ship. He pleaded guilty and was fined $10,000 or one month’s imprisonment. However, the Full Court overturned his conviction on April 20, 2001. The MV Cynthia was returned to Sugrim but legal proceedings are before the court for US$84,000 compensation for loss of use of the boat between February 9 and April 23 2001.
Sugrim said after he got his boat back, he was assaulted, arrested and locked up.
He said he was having breakfast at his home when he got a call that two customs officers were at his office. He said he called a video cameraman, Lakhram Raghunandan to go to the wharf and video what was taking place as he suspected a search was about to take place on his wharf of the motorised tug Lisa.
He said he went to his office and asked the officers why they were there and was told that they had instructions to search the tug which was moored alongside the wharf. The tug was waiting to be tied to return to Kwakwani to transport bauxite topping to New Amsterdam.
The businessman said the cameraman arrived and he instructed him to video everything. However, he said an officer grabbed the cameraman and tried to snatch the camera but was unsuccessful and both men fell on the ground in the tussle.
Sugrim said during this struggle, he saw ten men with long guns rush out from bushes surrounding his wharf. He said he immediately drew his firearm from his waist and the officer involved in the tussle shouted out to him not to fire as the men were from BASS and Customs. The camera was seized.
He said he replaced his gun and proceeded to his tug with the twelve men, a number of employees and private citizens. He said he told the officer that his cameraman should be allowed to video what was happening but the man became abusive.
Sugrim said the search, which he was told was for smuggled fuel, lasted about an hour and a half. He was then ordered to hand over his firearm and ammunition but he refused on the grounds that this should be done at the Springlands Police Station. He claimed the officer again became aggressive but he maintained that he would only give up his firearm to a police officer.
Sugrim said he and the cameraman were ordered into a white motor vehicle without number plates and with tinted windows. He said his pleas to be allowed to change his clothes fell on deaf ears. He said whilst at the New Amsterdam stelling, he asked to use the urinal and as he attempted to open the door, one of the officers kicked him on his knee and slammed the door shut on his leg. He was then taken to Brickdam Police Station and placed in the lockups with the cameraman.
Sugrim said his knee was very painful and he had a bad limp and he complained to the Duty Officer. He said a policeman examined him and then took him to the Georgetown Public Hospital where he was admitted.
His lawyer Ramjattan said he tried several times to have him bailed but was told by a senior customs officer that there were instructions that no bail would be granted. Sugrim said while at the Georgetown Hospital, on February 9, at about 2 pm a senior customs officer visited him and asked where he had been earlier in the day. Sugrim said the officer left, telling him that he would ensure that he slept at Brickdam. This was in the presence of a nurse, his brother and driver.
The following day, Sugrim said he was taken by two customs officers to Customs House and was placed on a bench with the cameraman for the entire day and later in the evening taken to the Brickdam lockups.
Ramjattan said he had been promised bail for Sugrim by 2:00 pm on the Monday but this did not happen. He had to file habeas corpus proceedings which were served on the department the next day. Sugrim was then released on $300,000 bail.
Sugrim said while he was in custody, the tug Lisa was taken from his wharf to the Guyoil wharf in New Amsterdam and about 700 gallons of fuel were pumped into Guyoil’s terminal and the tug was brought to Georgetown to the GNIC wharf.
The businessman said when he asked on February 13 why the tug was being detained, he was told “something will be found on that tug. Just leave it there”.
He also related that after his release, he was instructed by a customs official to report to Customs House on February 13 at 9:00 am, which he did. He was then asked to return at 1:00 pm. He said he returned only to be told to come back on February 17 at 9:00 am. On that date he was charged before Magistrate Juliet Holder Allen for the offences of threatening behaviour, hindering customs officers in the execution of their duties and assaulting customs officers. He was placed on $35,000 bail and the matter was transferred to the Springlands Magistrate’s Court for trial on March 20.
The tug is still to be released and Sugrim said he is unable to start transportation of bauxite topping which should have began on February 7. He said this is costing him $200,000 per day.
Meanwhile, Amarnauth, from whom Sugrim told the customs officers he had purchased the $874,000 worth of fuel was questioned and locked up at Brickdam as well. Amarnauth is a licensed petroleum dealer for speedboats and tugs, operating out of Mahaica and is a distributor for Esso and other dealers. In a telephone conversation with Stabroek News, Amarnauth said he was locked up at Brickdam until habeas corpus proceedings were instituted. He was released on $100,000 bail but no charge to date has been made against him. Amarnauth said he is leaving with his family to go and live abroad.
Ramjattan also noted that Kimmy Rahaman of Corriverton was questioned on February 14 about purchasing fuel from Sugrim and was detained for two days and placed on $100,000 bail. He was never charged. Ramjattan said he has received numerous other complaints about wrongful detention by customs officers with businessmen even being placed in the Brickdam lock-ups until huge sums of bail were posted for their release or they were released unconditionally.
In December, he noted that Faizal Ally and Douglas John, selling goods at the Stabroek Market in vehicles GGG 1361 and GGG 8473 were accosted by customs officials and taken to the Brickdam Police Station and placed in a cell. Ramjattan said the two men produced their documents prior to their arrest attesting that they had paid duties on the goods they were selling.
However, the men had to spend over 36 hours in the Brickdam lock-ups before customs verified that they had indeed paid duty on their goods and they were released unconditionally. Their vehicle and goods were released.
Ramjattan said `Stammer’, the driver of Gulmohamed Bacchus of Duncan street had a similar experience, having been arrested and placed at Brickdam until customs officials could have verified that duties were paid on the goods he was selling and he was released unconditionally.
“These were all innocent people who had to face the harsh conditions of the Brickdam lock-ups because the CTA presumed guilt, and not innocence until proven guilty.” Ramjattan asserted.
The lawyer also referred to the case of Allizeed Masahood who was hired by the Customs Department to transport questionable goods taken from Rasiawan Doodnauth on the Corentyne to Georgetown.
Ramjattan said the CTA guaranteed payment for the freight and the goods were delivered to Muneshwer’s wharf but Masahood was asked to return the following day for his truck as storage was not available. Ramjattan said up to February 24, Masahood was unable to get his truck or payment for his services despite the fact that Ramjattan had made representation on his behalf.
Masahood, Ramjattan said, begged every day for the release of his truck as he earned his living fetching greens from the Corentyne into the city. On January 31 Ramjattan sought a mandatory injunction to have the truck released forthwith. The order was granted but the department refused to release the truck. Ramjattan said on February 25, when the injunctive matter was returnable, he informed Chief Justice Carl Singh, that the truck had not been released. Justice Singh, Ramjattan said, instructed that if the truck was not released in two hours he would jail Lambert Marks. Ramjattan said the truck was released that afternoon and he has now sued the department for compensation for wrongful detention of Masahood’s truck, claiming the sum of $15,000 per day.
The case of businessman Parsram of No. 62 Village was also cited. Parsram, the owner of four gas stations and the Par Pak Hotel on the Corentyne, imported a Toyota Hilux from Canada when he remigrated in 1997. He paid duty and consumption tax of $1.3M and cleared the vehicle but did not register it for reasons unknown.
Ramjattan said the car had been parked at the rear of Parsram’s house and in November 2002, customs officers seized the vehicle claiming instructions from a senior government official. The customs officer had to install a battery and push the vehicle to start. The department is now claiming $2.8M as purchase tax for the release of the vehicle. Purchase tax is necessary for vehicles to be driven on the roads of Guyana.
However, Ramjattan said Parsram had a sentimental attachment to the car and imported it as an antique and not for use on the road. In a letter to Marks on the issue, Ramjattan demanded he release the vehicle as his client was not in breach of the Tax Act once the vehicle was not driven on the road. The lawyer also pointed out that even if purchase tax was applicable it should be on the current value of the car given depreciation and this would amount to $280,000. The vehicle has not been released to date.
“It is very obvious from what is happening that the investigation and enforcement by the CTA leave much to be desired. I think it is a lot of lawlessness and discourteous treatment to suspects who have more often than not proven to be innocent.”
He said such actions on the part of the department must not be tolerated and there was need for an enquiry into the CTA’s method of operations and its disregard for human rights.
Mr Ramjattan told us yesterday that the tug owned by N. Sugrim was released last week pursuant to an order by Justice Jainarain Singh.