January 25, 2004
The President is not serious. Faced with allegations about the existence of a death squad with links to a minister of his government, Mr Jagdeo has urged Opposition Leader Robert Corbin to encourage anyone with information to make a formal report to the police. As we reported on Thursday, this exhortation came in response to a letter from Mr Corbin asking for an independent inquiry into the allegations, and requesting that Minister Gajraj vacate office as a prerequisite to the probe. Quite aside from the fact that it is Mr Jagdeo who heads the government, and not Mr Corbin, and that this sounds like a reversal of roles, it is hard to understand how the President can believe that his reply will convince thinking persons of his commitment to a search for the truth.
And that is what this is all about. How can the Government entertain an investigation by the police force when Mr George Bacchus, the man who precipitated the current storm, has claimed that police officers have also been involved with the squad? It might be added, that as was pointed out last week, several of the mysterious killings appeared as if they had police associations at some level. The issue is not whether or not the police would undertake a thorough investigation, as Commissioner McDonald (ag) has assured the public they would; the issue is one of transparency and of ensuring that any investigation would not be tainted by accusations of interference. And in a situation like this, appearances are all important. If, for example, a police inquiry were to dismiss the allegations as unfounded, then the problem would not go away, no matter how professionally the investigations had been conducted.
President Jagdeo in his reply to Mr Corbin stated that the utterances were merely allegations being transmitted via the media, adding that there seemed to be an ongoing trial by the media. It is true that at this stage these are merely allegations. However, even as the Government appears to have recognized, they are not claims which can be dismissed out of hand, as was the case with some rather more outrageous accusations made against the ruling party in the past. This time, at least some of them have sufficient correspondence to events to provide a tolerably credible, if partial, explanation of those events. This in itself does not make the allegations true, either wholly or in part, but it does mean that reasonable suspicions can be entertained, suspicions which a democratic government should be anxious to put to rest.
President Jagdeo, no less than Dr Luncheon, appears to have got it into his head that because the allegations appeared in the media, the Government cannot agree to an independent inquiry. But if it is prepared to give some of the allegations which have been presented so far sufficient credence to ask for a police investigation, then why are those allegations not good enough for an independent inquiry in circumstances where the police force itself - or more properly, individual members of it - might also be the subject of the investigation? If the President insists on hanging on to a police probe, then he will be conveying the message, which may very well be incorrect, that there is something to hide.
Nor does the head-of-state's belief that a trial is underway in the media make any difference to the situation. If it is indeed the case that that is so, then it becomes more important than ever from the administration's point of view that an independent inquiry is mounted so that rumour can be dispelled. If, as Government spokesmen are suggesting, there is really no fire at all behind the smoke, then the ruling party has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain from what is perceived to be an independent probe - whatever form that takes.
The evidence at the moment would seem to suggest that the Government does not feel that it has to respond meaningfully to the pressure in relation to an independent inquiry, or the call that Mr Gajraj should step down for the duration of that inquiry. The reason is not far to seek. For the most part, its own constituency is making no demands because it considers that even if the allegations are true, then at least the death squad(s) solved the problem of the 'Buxton criminal enterprise,' and should be seen, therefore, as having effected some good in the society. And since the most persistent demands are coming largely (although by no means exclusively) from the main opposition, whose record, to say the least, is hardly without blemish, there is no reason to do more than make token gestures - like a police investigation.
The danger of letting private hit squads - even if there is no state sponsorship at any level - run loose in the society has been addressed in Stabroek News' editorial columns before, including last Thursday. If these are left unchecked, the Government will find its grip on the state slackening, and on those grounds alone, therefore, it should be amenable to a genuine search for the truth. But it has something else to lose too if it does not act: its international credibility, with all that that implies.
There is a cloud hanging over the current administration. The power to dispel it, however, lies not with the Leader of the Opposition, but with President Jagdeo and the Government itself.