Getting to the bottom of it all
May 16, 2004
AS HE promised last week, President Bharrat Jagdeo announced on Friday, on the eve of his visit to the Essequibo island of Wakenaam, that he had set up a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations that Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj was linked to or headed a “state-sponsored death squad.”
The disclosure about the commission of inquiry didn’t come as any surprise, although some cynics thought it ironical that the President would initiate a public probe into the death squad charges amid arguments that no formal complaint or report substantiating the allegations against Minister Gajraj had been submitted to the police.
That remains the case.
George Bacchus, the man who originally aired the allegation the day his brother, Shafeek, died in a drive-by shooting, has not come forward despite appeals by the police for him to do so. Neither has PNC/R leader Robert Corbin, who publicly announced he had credible or substantial ‘death squad’ information implicating the Minister.
Instead, George Bacchus has accused the PNCR of politicizing the issue and seemingly has exited the public domain. The PNCR, arguably angered by the Minister’s role in the country’s law enforcement agencies fearlessly confronting the “well-armed and dangerous criminals,” whom supporters of the PNCR referred to as ‘freedom fighters,’ has ignored Bacchus’ chide and launched an unrelenting anti-Gajraj campaign.
But the President, reiterating his interest in a ‘death squad’ inquiry, said he was anxious to get to the bottom of it all and put the matter to rest.
Some analysts believe the opposition’s rabid anti-Gajraj sentiments go back to the Linden ‘Blackie’ London saga. Under the Minister’s watch, a police/army contingent on February 9, 2000 ended Blackie’s 11-hour standoff in an Eccles hotel, where his woman companion, Rhonda Forde, had earlier died in an exchange of gunfire, by taking his life.
The criminal fugitive, a former army officer, was wanted for 4 murders and 14 robberies. Yet, former President and PNCR leader Desmond Hoyte attended London's funeral at the Square of the Revolution on February 16, and publicly condemned extrajudicial killings by the police.
Until the latter part of the 2002/03 crime wave, the PNCR had accused the police of state-directed extrajudicial killings every time those ranks imperiled their lives in shoot-outs with the ‘freedom fighters.’ Governmental critics frequently questioned what they termed the excessive use of force against the criminals, even though those fugitives had laid siege to an entire village (Buxton), executing police and civilians at will and engaging in a litany of robberies, beatings, kidnappings, drive-by shootings, rapes, car-jackins, arson and, in one horrendous case, the merciless beating, robbing and then torching of visually impaired retiree, Haroon Rasheid, as the 56-year-old Non Pariel resident grieved the loss of his wife in a road accident. The gang of bandits also robbed mourners who were at Rasheid’s home for his wife’s funeral and the man, who developed a stroke and was totally blinded by the attack, died in hospital a couple of days later.
Minister Gajraj has accused the PNCR of attempting to tarnish his reputation, but says he’d do it all over again.
“Specifically,” he said in his May 7 statement, “I have, without regret, endured many sleepless nights in fulfilling my duties to the people of Guyana to make our streets and villages safer…protecting them from the bandits, murderous criminals and their handlers who seek to deprive our citizens of not only their property, but also their sense of security, dignity and even life…
“It would be an injustice to the people of Guyana to serve as the Minister of Home Affairs without doing all that may be necessary within the confines of the law in carrying out the tremendous task at hand, particularly in confronting the organized and seemingly politically motivated crime wave of 2002/2003 period.”
Speculation is that the PNCR would frown on the all-Guyanese Commission of Inquiry, concerned as it says it is about the possibility of governmental interference in the investigation. But then the chairman of the commission, Justice Ian Chang, was the PNCR’s choice for the chairmanship of the Disciplined Forces Commission.
We, like the President and everyone else mindful of the impact of crises, scandals, and unsubstantiated allegations on facets of national life, want to see this controversy quickly behind us.
The government has ensured that procedures are in place for the inquiry that has been called for. Our hope is that all stakeholders will allow the process to materialize, for the chips to fall where they may, and for us to get on with our lives.