The future of the death squad inquiry
June 26, 2004
Bowing to international and domestic pressure, the former more than the latter, the Government of Guyana last month announced a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to examine whether the Minister of Home Affairs was involved, and to what extent, with death squads. The local and domestic campaign for an independent commission of inquiry was spurred by now deceased George Bacchus who had first made the allegation linking the minister to death squad activities.
The opposition parties had expressed reservations about lack of consultation in the establishment of the commission and about its scope. Amnesty International and the Guyana Human Rights Association had questioned the appointment of one of the commissioners, and the government, we were told, was seeking legal advice on whether one of the appointees to the commission was in a position of conflict.
However, rather than dealing with this matter, the government has failed to make a quick decision on the areas of concern. Two weeks ago, the president left Guyana with the composition of the commission of inquiry not settled. This was rather unfortunate since the death of George Bacchus will make the task of activating the commission even more difficult.
We are yet to learn whether the president has received advice but now we are told that the government may be considering extending the terms of reference of the commission, a sign that the government may still be coming under intense international pressure to move towards some form of consensus. With the death of George Bacchus, the possibility of the involvement of the main opposition in discussions leading to a widened commission on inquiry has been effectively dashed because of their haste to score political points. The PNCR has issued a statement accusing the government of complicity in the death of Bacchus. They had in their public protests already deemed Gajraj a murderer, and therefore, the PNCR cannot legitimately be a part of any consultations in the appointment of a revised commission of inquiry.
Bacchus’s death also has other effects on the inquiry. If his death is connected to the death squad allegations, it can serve to deter people from coming forward with evidence. There is a way, however, of dealing with this problem, which is not unique to this particular inquiry. The commissioners can agree to the taking of secret or in camera evidence by the commission.
But from the perspective of his own evidence, Bacchus escapes having to face cross- examination over his testimony. No one, however, expected that the inquiry would revolve, exclusively or in the main, around Bacchus’ stories to the media. To put it mildly, Bacchus had prior to his death became a discredited witness, having admitted that he had recanted and told a GINA reporter that Gajraj was not involved in any death squad. He claimed that he did this because he was promised a sum of money.
Bacchus’s death now means that there will be a police investigation. However, this in itself should not discourage the commissioners from proceeding with their work; the inquiry itself may be helpful to the police.
The death squad inquiry should therefore continue because Guyana needs to develop a local culture of independent commissions of inquiry. While the untimely death of George Bacchus will now throw a blanket over the process, we must not lose sight of the large picture of bringing closure to this entire affair that is consuming national time and attention and retarding political and economic advancement.
As Guyanese we need to bring closure to this matter so that we can move forward. The best way to do this would be to have everything in the open. The death of George Bacchus should encourage those, who are anxious to see justice done, to ensure that his killers are not successful in thwarting the commission of inquiry. If that happens, the killers and violence would have been the victor.
Let us therefore, proceed with the inquiry, rather than leave the book open on this very troubling affair of the death squad allegations.