The political ramifications of this death squad affair are considerable
February 16, 2004
It is quite possible that Mr. Gajraj is innocent.
But this reflection only serves to remind us that everyone on remand and awaiting trial in the prisons he administers may also be innocent.
This only serves to remind us that the principle of the presumption of innocence is, in practice, not at all in contradiction with the process of finding a "reasonable cause" to investigate, arrest, charge, detain and bring to trial.
In fact, you are presumed innocent but that presumption serves only to offer you hope of an acquittal, not exemption from an investigation and all that may follow. A professional police force and the prosecutorial apparatus, charged with the defence of your society hauls you before the courts, presumption of innocence or not. Innocence is up to your lawyers to plead and to prove.
Mr Gajraj, a member of the legal profession and paymaster to the police force, would have known all this. And he would know that, central to the affair, is the denial to those they say became his victims, of this presumption of innocence and right to a correct investigative procedure. He would also know that the argument for a "presumption of innocence" is empty and will only beguile those laymen inclined to see the Phantom Squad as justice at work.
The only serious question therefore, seems to be whether the investigation of Mr. Gajraj and his possible trial by judge and jury can be justified by the facts in hand. The investigation may commence and proceed on the basis of "reasonable cause."
But here, the Police do not seem inclined to act, and the prospects for an inquest into the Phantom Squad murders at the behest of a private citizen, if this is possible, are not encouraging. Hence, Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan's suggestion that a parliamentary sectoral committee convene as a sort of grand jury may be the best solution.
Consider the importance of this affair and the legal as well as political consequences.
From a judicial perspective, this must be, at least, conspiracy to commit murder, aiding and abetting, and, in some jurisdictions, association with known felons with intent to commit crimes. And what is especially demoralising is the fact that we have, now inscribed in our legal history, one of the worst accusations of organised serial homicide to have been made against a government official in a democracy. This puts in a class of their own Mr. Gajraj and the government who defends him, and who he is believed to have defended.
In regarding the case of Mr. Gajraj we do not lose sight of what may be the PPP's position. Which is that the terror of a covert war had been unleashed against it. It responded. In many parts of the world governments have used covert methods, (including counter-intelligence operations and assassination) to protect themselves, supporters, citizens at large, ideologies, foreign investments, the private lives of cabinet members, state and defence secrets....
In many parts of the world governments had found no need to admit, justify or ventilate these operations. The disaster in which perhaps seventy Guyanese died when a Cubana aircraft was bombed out of the sky in an operation by CIA supported Cuban dissidents is a case in point.
But in almost all of these types of cases, the target was not an ordinary criminality. And our government would have had to convince itself that the outbreak of violence represented something more insidious. And this in a fragile society being pulled apart by racial tensions.
The defense coming from the PPP is that Mr Gajraj has been a victim of mere allegations. One would have thought that in Guyana, a country with a numerous and talented corps of lawyers, a remedy would have been sought in the law. George Bacchus could simply be held on a charge of withholding information from the police, if such a law still exists. Mr. Corbin would also be summoned by the parliamentary committee or police to disclose the "information/intelligence" in his possession and care.
In Brooklyn over the last weekend I was told that the PNC/Reform leader should have met supporters and "concerned Guyanese" on Sunday to give his party's views on the Gajraj case among, I suppose, other matters.
It then occurs to the observer that another irony of the case is that the PPP let it be known at the height of the violence that it had proof of opposition involvement. The PPP/Civic never bothered to take the elementary step of giving that proof to the Police, as they now demand of Mr. Corbin, but were content to indulge in making "allegations."
Certainly a commission of enquiry into the whole episode of violence and retaliation needs to be set up. But this is unlikely to happen.
A majority of Guyanese is hoping that Mr. Gajraj is guilty, but for different reasons and therefore with differing visions as to the consequences that should flow from such guilt.
The opposition supporters would of course wish to see in this another sign of the depravity of the government. They would like to see Mr. Gajraj (as emblematic of the PPP) on death row. The PNC/Reform has obviously seen in the affair the kind of scandal where the moral and legal issues are at last clear. Gajraj has come as a gift. An issue that has gone international.
On the other hand government supporters would also like to believe that Mr. Gajraj laboured and plotted in their defence. They would, in admitting his responsibility, be assuaged of their fears that the PPP/Civic abandoned them to the thieves and killers without taking protective action. They would like to see Mr. Gajraj in the gallery of heroes. And at long last. Thus for the PPP/Civic the affair is also a gift. This will take care of ROAR, they must be saying.
The PPP/Civic while knowing that its new bad boy image would have endeared it to its supporters, has retrenched, in public, to a defensive position. Which for it means invoking the 28 years and demanding to be measured not against the standards that should govern a civilized society, but against the worst mistakes of the former PNC administration.
But there are a few others who cannot see their political benefit in Mr. Gajraj's predicament.
ROAR has suddenly found itself relieved of the role of defender of the Indians against the brutal blacks and the effete government. Its criticism of a government that abandoned its followers to the wolves is suddenly no longer entirely believable. Apparently the government may have been doing all along what some demanded - stopping the violence by any means necessary. For ROAR the violence will no longer serve as a rallying issue. Ravi Dev, I note, has also called for an investigation and taken a principled position on the matter.
GIHA, launched into orbit by the explosion of violence and on a trajectory for Trinidad to whip up Jahaji support around the time the news broke has, as far as I know, said nothing yet on the Gajraj affair. "Mulling", as the newsmen say, over a new strategy? There is an eerie silence coming from the mind of Ryhaan Shah. The association had been loud in its demands that government do something. It had met Pres. Jagdeo. The president had given words of comfort. But for GIHA this had not been enough. They wanted action. They got it.
The WPA, with a good policy (power sharing) in a difficult place (race dominated Guyana) ought by now to be reconsidering its resolve to mate with fish as with fowl. It should now be thinking that indiscriminate power sharing may sometimes bring embarrassment and grief as your partners' perversions come to light.
Even if the government of national unity may have prevented the despair and violence in the first place and certainly rendered impossible the bizarre reaction being attributed to the current administration, entering into a mÃ©nage with the PPP/Civic is untenable in the present circumstances. At least until all becomes clear.
Hence, the Gajraj affair has the potential to affect the politics in Guyana in ways that may be difficult to predict. And it will influence the prospects of our political parties.
It also seems to be affecting our international image and playing a role in diplomatic relations. Two embassies, the US and the Canadian, with major influence on aid donors, seem to have declared Mr Gajraj persona non grata in their homelands. Apparently the information in their possession would not support a presumption of innocence. Or it may be that they wish for some action on the part of the government. The commission of enquiry seems necessary.
What would be recorded by the commission - the frightening details of a low intensity ethno-political war, in which counter-espionage, murders, drug barons, corruption, Trinidadian mercenaries, and a cast of the dead whose false-names spoke only of their sad social origins and prospects- will remain to haunt us.
Only a commission of enquiry or police investigation can explain why the PPP, if it really believed that the opposition was behind the criminal rage of the past years, could not or dared not arrest and question the people George Bacchus had "located".
Was it politics? This would have been their big chance to bring the PNC to trial. Perhaps they feared a nation-wide conflagration. PNC mobs, whipped up by Corbin from his seat in the docks, going on a rampage against their supporters. Perhaps the decision to conduct a covert operation was seen as the best way to deal with the "destabilization" and to send the message that "our steel is sharper" to the PNC. An enquiry should surely bring all this out.
But, again, the commission is unlikely to happen unless the government is forced. And even if a criminal conspiracy is proved the government is unlikely to resign. If found innocent a lot of its supporters would be really disappointed. But so would be some PNC/Reform supporters and certain Indian activists.
Both the major parties need to examine themselves frankly. Some members on both sides would prefer their party to adhere to principle and to renounce this recrimination and rancour that found an extreme expression in what we experienced over the past two years. The minor parties need to continue to put pressure on them. All citizens need to speak out.