THE 'DEATH SQUAD' POLITICS ROW
RICKEY SINGH COLUMN
January 18, 2004
Minister Gajraj should offer resignation pending probe
CLAIMS of extra-judicial killings, either by the police or so-called 'phantom death squads', have frequently accompanied anti-crime battles against the upsurge in criminality in Caribbean Community states.
As, for instance, in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, with ensuing strong criticisms from local and international human rights bodies who insist, and rightly so, on due process.
Currently, Guyanese authorities - police and ministerial - are very much the focus of allegations about the existence of a "death squad" that have killed a number of "wanted" criminals.
The more sensational claim by a self-confessed "informant" to this "death squad" has to do with allegations pertaining to contacts with Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj.
Published reports quoting the informant, George Bacchus, who went public with his claim - following information he is said to have made available to the United States Embassy in Georgetown - were quickly dismissed in comments to the media by the Home Affairs Minister.
At the time of writing, informant Bacchus, whose businessman brother, Shafeek Bacchus, was gunned down outside his home on the night of January 5, had failed to confront three men in police custody who he allegedly implicated in death squad killings.
The men in custody may or not have been charged by the time you read this column -depending on advice being awaited by the police from the Director of Public Prosecutions.
**(The trio - Ashton King, Shawn Hinds and Mark Thomas - were charged and placed before the Court since this column was written).
With Police Commissioner Floyd McDonald being "unavailable" at the time of my call, Crime Chief Leon Trim, with whom I subsequently spoke, said that "investigations are continuing into the allegations made by George Bacchus.
Trim said he was aware from media reports that "the informant Bacchus" had been in communication with U.S. Embassy officials. But he explained that "so far we have had no inquiries from the Embassy or any contact on the matter..."
Rule of Law
Given the very serious nature of the allegations and their implications for the rule of law in a civilised society, and in the interest of his own integrity, the Home Affairs Minister should seriously consider offering his resignation to President Bharrat Jagdeo, while all relevant investigations are being thoroughly pursued. The allegations go beyond the three men charged.
At the height of the criminal rampage last year, extending from 2002, with killings, kidnappings, armed robberies and car hijackings, I wrote in this newspaper that Minister Gajraj should also be relieved of his current portfolio.
He was to subsequently react emotionally by criticising journalists "who do not live here" - (it is known I work and reside in Barbados) - in relation to the comments I had made on the anti-crime-fighting strategies and suggestion about his own replacement in what I still consider a long overdue Cabinet reshuffle by President Jagdeo.
Now, of course, with the PNC/R very much on the offensive in calling for Gajraj's resignation, based on the allegations which he has already dismissed as mere "speculation and politicking", President Jagdeo may be reluctant to be seen to carry out such a ministerial change under pressure from his traditional opponents.
However, if he considers it objectively, Minister Gajraj may do himself a favour by offering his resignation and allow rigorous, legitimate investigations to take place while perhaps the President himself assumes responsibility for Home Affairs.
If there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear. This equally applies to the crime sleuths in the Guyana Police Force, as much as to George Bacchus himself, the informant who has confessed his own association with the "death squad", and now being advised by lawyers, some not without their own political connections and agendas.
Justice must take its course. Death squads must not be part of the culture of governance of any democratic state - Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, or else!
Guyanese people, across the political divide, are not so simple and forgetful not to recall how state-sponsored assassinations and political terrorism wasted lives and drove many into joining the exodus to foreign lands during the long reign of successive governments of the People's National Congress.
It would have been sheer political theatre last week when new PNC/R leader, Robert Corbin, staged his dramatic walk-out from the oath-taking ceremony for members of the new Police Service Commission because Minister Gajraj had also shown up for the event.
The political drama was to later be followed up with picketing exercises outside the Ministry of Home Affairs and declaration of a signature campaign demanding the resignation of Minister Gajraj.
It is understandable why the PNC/R would want to make politics out of the current controversy to embarrass the government and, specifically, Minister Gajraj. Uncomfortable, as it may be, this is part of multi-party politics in a democratic state. And the PNC/R's "resignation" demand is, as of now, quite peaceful and lawful.
The Guyanese reality is that no one familiar with the sordid history of PNC politics while in power, will fail to remember the state-instigated killings and political terrorism associated with its rule. Then, even legitimate dissent was a luxury under constant watch.
Guyanese would know that not all who had anything to do with either the assassination of Walter Rodney, his body guards or other citizens who fell victim to state-instigated murders under PNC rule, are dead, no longer active in politics, or out of Guyana.
Of course, there must be no rationalising for any form of extra-judicial killings, or to justify the existence of a death squad - whether operating within the Police Force or with its knowledge.
The culpability of the main opposition PNC in state-sponsored crimes during its rule has been cited to strengthen the argument why such a rotten culture of governance should have no place in Guyana, Jamaica, or any other society of our Caribbean Community. Not under a PNC or PPP administration.
Therefore, the sooner Mr. Gajraj offered the resignation and the ruling comes from the DPP on the three men in police custody, the better it would be for this more than politically bruising affair to be further pursued.
Due process yes, for those in custody as much as Minister Gajraj himself. If not, to be guided by mere allegations and speculations, would mean accepting, without evidence, some of the wicked allegations that had also been made against PNC politicians when they were in government and some of whom are currently very active in using George Bacchus's allegations as ammunition against Gajraj.
Jamaica has had its share of bitter controversies over alleged state-instigated killings that involved members of the security forces and politicians.
Not only Jamaicans but Guyanese and other CARICOM citizens as well, would recall, for example, the chilling murders at Green Bay in the 1970s when, as if to justify the extra-judicial killings of alleged criminals, there came a startling ministerial claim that "no angels died at Green Bay".
Culture of Violence
The culture of violence in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, spawned by murders and criminal violence, have rocked their populations with a significant component of extra-judicial killings of both cops and criminals. Some argue that the killings of cops and criminals, or alleged criminals, cannot be disassociated from a perceived flawed system of intelligence gathering and such anti-crime initiatives as "crime stoppers", with "information" being provided via telephone calls to distributed telephone numbers, and often resulting in abuse of fundamental rights and, worse, deaths.
As CARICOM states move to improve their policies and methodologies to deal more effectively with their serious crime and security problems, Guyana, for all its own tribulations at the hands of a criminal network, has no alternative but to adhere - and seen to be so doing - to the rule of law, while protecting the society from those bent on murders and spreading lawlessness and fear.
With some 205 people murdered last year, a great many by armed criminals, who also committed rape and robberies, it is not surprising to read letters in the local media - as happens also in other Caribbean societies - from residents seeking to rationalise extra-judicial killings.
But, as the 'Trinidad Express' has just noted, editorially, in reminding that country's new crime squad of the challenges it faces:
"Societies are either run on the basis of civilised laws, or they are not, and should the law of the jungle be made to apply, many of the very people now opting for that way of proceeding (i.e. the law of the jungle), would rue the state of brutishness that their own recommendations have wrought..."
Battling crime and ensuring greater security has emerged as a major challenge for all countries of the Caribbean region. Nevertheless, whatever the pressures, the rule of law must not give way to the rule of the jungle.