January 18, 2004
At a press briefing on November 27, 2002, Dr Luncheon referred to strong public sentiment that "there seems to be reasonable plausible evidence that suggests that there is a body out there that has been involved in criminal activities and it is not the escapees..." On the following day we reported him as saying too that the country's intelligence agencies were examining the possibility that there was a "phantom body" involved in a number of killings and shootings.
Exactly what came out of that examination, the public was never informed, but in any case, thereafter the official line coming from both Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj and President Jagdeo was that they were unaware of the existence of any 'phantom' or death squad. This was even after the death of Shawn Brown, and what appeared to the public to be a pattern of 'execution'-style killings carried out with seeming impunity.
One might have thought that the administration should have been alarmed - to give but one example - about the number of witnesses who claimed that they thought the victim was being taken or gunned down by the police, either because the assailants were wearing bullet-proof vests with police markings, or because they described themselves as policemen, or because one of them was identified as being a member of the force. If they were policemen, then the state authorities should have been deeply concerned, because here was clear evidence of law enforcement officers acting extra-judicially; and if they weren't policemen, then they should have been deeply concerned that elements unknown, carrying sophisticated weapons were masquerading as policemen. But for some unfathomable reason, the Government showed no overt interest, fobbing off the press with vague statements about drug gangs and turf wars.
For their part, the police denied involvement, last November advising citizens to demand to see identification cards and badges from those claiming to be members of the force - not very helpful advice, it must be said, for anyone about to be gunned down. It should be acknowledged that the inhabitants of this land did not get the feeling that the GPF qua GPF was behind the killings, although that did not rule out the possibility that individual policemen were not implicated.
What was notable about the crimes in the post-Shawn Brown era, was that in many cases they were not clandestine operations, carried out away from the public eye during those hours when the bulk of the law-abiding population is tucked up in bed. These were perpetrated in the full glare of daylight, or during the early evening in front of sometimes numerous witnesses. Did the administration not for one second get a shiver of anxiety about a group of executioners stalking the land, who feared nobody and seemingly targeted whomsoever they felt like, with law enforcement powerless to stop them? Should not the average government in the average democracy have been overtaken by the unholy feeling that perhaps they were not quite in control of things in the way that they should be? Yet save for Dr Luncheon's remarks more than a year ago quoted above, senior members of the Government professed no public curiosity about the situation whatsoever.
And now along comes Mr George Bacchus with his allegations, many of which are consistent with the evidence which ordinary citizens have been puzzling over for months. The core of his story that there was a death squad which was formed to deal with the crime wave associated with the Mash Day escapees, and which subsequently became diverted from its original aim to undertake contract killings, cannot be dismissed out of hand. It corresponds at some level to too much that is already public knowledge.
Even before Mr Bacchus came forward, there was a good case for an independent investigation into all these mystery killings. As the Guyana Human Rights Association observed, the interim report of the Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) had noted that there were organized killings taking place, and the report had cited allegations that these were state-sponsored, or the result of organized crime, among other possibilities. If, as Dr Luncheon suggested, the Government was prepared to take note of strong public sentiment about "plausible evidence" relating to a "phantom body" as long ago as November 2002, and the intelligence services were asked to examine the evidence, what is inhibiting the powers that be from mounting an independent investigation now, given that the evidence is so much more compelling than it was then, and given what the DFC said in its interim report?
All of this is quite aside from the far more prickly issue of allegations associating Minister Gajraj with a death squad. The truth of the matter is, however, that if these claims have no merit, it is in the Minister's best interest to have an independent investigation so that his name can be cleared. If he does not do this, unsavoury allegations, even if untrue, will continue to swirl around him which it will be impossible to lay to rest, and he will find it difficult to function in his post. By extension, the Government he serves will be perceived as having something to hide, even if that is not the case.
In addition, it is customary in such circumstances for the state official who is part of the subject of an investigation to step down while the inquiry is underway. This is in order to facilitate the process, and to ensure that in terms of public perception, the functionary cannot be open to the accusation that he impeded the investigation.
The emphasis, however, has to be on an independent investigation; a police inquiry simply will not do, more especially given public fears that individual policemen may have had connections with the hit squad; given the fact that witnesses - rightly or wrongly - thought that some of the perpetrators of abductions and shootings were members of the police force; and given the fact that Mr Bacchus too has said certain policemen had associations with the squad. Exactly what form that independent investigation should take is a matter for discussion, although one suggestion was put forward in Stabroek News' editorial last Monday.
The Government should not underestimate the situation in which it finds itself. This particular issue will not go away on its own, and it needs to make a rational response which will allay public fears, and above all, public suspicions. What is at stake is not just the credibility of the administration, but the credibility of the state. Restoring public confidence in that state and its agencies must be a primary objective.