Guyana Chronicle
May 23, 2004

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AS GUYANESE prepare to celebrate the 38th anniversary of Guyana's independence on Wednesday, the big question is no longer whether there will be an official probe into allegations of involvement by Minister of Home Affairs, Ronald Gajraj, in the killings of criminal elements by a phantom death squad.

Rather, whether the time has eventually arrived for calling the bluff of Opposition Leader Robert Corbin's People's National Congress/Reform that it has credible evidence linking the Home Affairs Minister to such a squad.

Let none be so politically obtuse - whatever his or her ethnicity or political affiliation - that if it is really in possession of incriminating evidence, the PNC/R would want to miss a good opportunity to expose Minister Gajraj and, by extension, create serious problems for the government.

If, therefore, it is not bluffing, the PNC/R must deliver on its allegations instead of rushing off letters to the United Nations and refusing to cooperate with police investigations.

Any Presidential Commission of Inquiry, established under the Commission of Inquiry Act, that takes its work seriously, and is concerned with natural justice and not personalities and party politics, should be able to summon any individual, association or organisation to give evidence they feel could help the purpose for which the probe was mandated.

In this context, I think there are readers, across the political spectrum, who would have been quite surprised by the statement attributed to Justice Ian Chang, as reported in another section of the local media, questioning the usefulness of the Commission if "it doesn't address the concerns by the opposition".

"Concerns of the opposition", or bringing closure by findings based on work of competence and integrity, to the sensational allegations of ministerial involvement in death squad murders that have cast serious doubts on the integrity of the governing process?

Chang, who headed the Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) with the consent of the PNC/R, would, like others identified for the three-member Presidential Commission, cannot be unmindful that at the core of the raging controversy is the opposition's allegations of Minister Gajraj's relationship with the claimed phantom death squad.

One does not have to be a judge or a lawyer, a high-ranking officer of the Guyana Defence Force or Police Force to appreciate that there is nothing in the announced terms of reference of the Commission of Inquiry to prevent the commissioners from pursuing with vigour, competence and integrity, such investigative procedures that could enable the unearthing of credible evidence of Minister Gajraj's alleged involvement with death squad killings. Or, that he has indeed been, as he insists, the victim of a horrible politically-instigated campaign of slander to ruin him personally and politically.

It has been noted that the Commission's terms of reference and even its composition are not to the liking of the PNC/R. But what else is new for a party that has made a fine art of opposition for the sake of opposition?

Dictating Governance?
After being in power for 28 years, during which its corroding influence affected every important institution of this country - including the judiciary and the disciplined forces, it now behaves as if it has the right to dictate governance from Congress Place.

I went on record months ago, on January 18, 2004, in support of Mr. Gajraj offering his resignation to President Bharrat Jagdeo while an independent probe is established to deal with the death squad allegations.

Subsequently, on February 1, I also urged in this column, that the Home Affairs Minister should proceed on leave from office and allow "a transparent probe" to take shape

Finally, on May 7, Minister Gajraj disclosed in a lengthy statement that he had asked, some weeks earlier, for President Bharrat Jagdeo to establish an independent inquiry.

As he was anxious to clear his name from the criminal allegations against him, he said, he stood ready to proceed on leave for the inquiry to begin.

Having lost the propaganda advantage to the PNC/R and its faithful allies, through its own vacillations and insistence on investigation by the Police Force, it was better late than never to learn of the government's decision to have a three-member Presidential Commission of Inquiry.

Should such an inquiry find Gajraj culpable of any criminal wrongdoing, then he would have to face the consequences in a court of law, not the law of the streets or the spit press.

But the PNC/R seems to prefer the path of allegations rather than cooperation with submission of evidence. Consequently, having failed to produce evidence over the past four months, he has no intention to cooperate with the Presidential Commission of Inquiry.

The PNC/R and its allies - either within a fractured Trades Union Congress were quick to rush to judgement in dismissing as "a farce" the proposed three-member Presidential Commission of Justice Chang, ex-GDF head Norman McLean and chairman of the Police Service Commission, Ivan Crandon, as well as the terms of reference that requires the Commissioners to:

\Terms of Reference
"Examine, advise and report on whether and to what extent there is evidence of a credible nature to support allegations that the Minister of Home Affairs has been involved in promoting, directing or otherwise engaging in activities which have involved the extra-judicial killing of persons..."

The PNC/R and its allies claim that the terms of reference are restricted to the alleged culpability of the Home Affairs Minister and do not include wider issues of the criminal carnage in which Guyana was gripped in 2002 following the infamous jail-break of five dangerous prisoners.

The opposition even unfairly cast doubts on the integrity of the three named commissioners - the composition of which may yet change, for different reasons, by the time you read this.

If and when this happens, this aspect of the highly politicised allegations of ministerial involvement with a "death squad" would require revisiting.

Particularly, since the phantom squad controversy has emerged as a major plank in the protest politics of a party that has been living with a tarnished history of political assassinations with victims such as that icon of Guyana and the Caribbean, Walter Rodney, and made celebrities of known dangerous criminals killed by the police.

Amid all the negative, rapid-fire responses in rejecting the proposed Presidential Commission of Inquiry, what has stood out among the positive approaches - such as that of the Guyana Council of Churches, and even the qualified support given by the head of the Guyana Bar Association - is the position articulated by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA).

In commenting on why it is wrong to rush to judgement against the Commissioners and the work of the Commission, the GHRA stated the preference for wider terms of reference that would have included the phantom killings from February 2002. But it also pointed to the positive dimensions that could result from the Presidential Commission.

A central contention of the GHRA, not expressed by politicians and groups reacting to the Presidential Commission, is that if indeed there exists "evidence" about the integrity of the named Commissioners, then such information should be made known "publicly and explicitly".

Equally, I think, all individuals, parties and groups claiming to have "evidence" of death squad killings and of Minister Gajraj's involvement, have a moral obligation to make such evidence known.

They should cease hiding behind media allegations and party platform accusations for, at the end of the day, they may further reinforce the perception of the "politics of bluffing" and not helping the cause of justice.

There also seems merit in the GHRA's argument in relation to Mr. Crandon's membership of the Presidential Commission, to avoid any misunderstanding about conflict of interest, while not questioning either his competence or integrity.