Gajraj asks President for 'impartial' probe of death squad claims
Willing to proceed on leave
Stabroek News
May 8, 2004

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Ronald Gajraj making his statement yesterday. (GINA photo)

Under mounting pressure embattled Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj yesterday asked the Head of State for an impartial inquiry into the death squad allegations, saying he is willing to proceed on leave to calm any fears of interference.

In an unexpected twist in the saga that started four months ago when the explosive allegations surfaced, Gajraj asked President Bharrat Jagdeo to commission an impartial inquiry "so that the people of Guyana can know the truth".

"I am prepared to proceed on leave upon such mechanisms being put in place to facilitate a fair and impartial inquiry and to allay fears of interference with the process that warped and corrupt minds may harbour," he said in a three-page statement that was issued by the Govern-ment Information Agency (GINA).

The administration is yet to pronounce on the minister's request, though a statement is expected to be made.

"The President at an appropriate time will offer a public statement on the matter... [but] the when part is a presidential prerogative," Infor-mation Liaison to the Presi-dent Robert Persaud told Sta-broek News when contacted.

Gajraj said his request was prompted by constant attacks on his character as well as the conclusions, based on speculations, suspicions and conjecture, which have been peddled by opposition politicians and some sections of the media.

"I am no longer prepared to allow my integrity and commitment to the laws of Guyana to be the subject of a trial in sections of the media and at opposition political meetings," he said.

"If the claim that my presence in the office of the Minister of Home Affairs is forestalling any investigation or probe, then I am willing even to entertain such a weak argument to end this campaign of smear against me and thwart a concerted campaign to bring the entire government into disrepute. I am interested in a speedy, fair and impartial investigation so that the people of Guyana can know the truth. The truth that I Ronald Gajraj am not guilty of those scandalous allegations."

There had been calls for an independent inquiry into the death squad allegations by several groups, including the opposition PNCR, the Guyana Human Rights Asso-ciation, the Guyana Bar Asso-ciation, the Guyana Council of Churches and the Trades Union Congress. The initial reactions to his statement yesterday though positive have also been accompanied by some degree of skepticism.

The government has steadfastly resisted calls for an independent investigation into the death squad allegations, instead insisting that the police take the lead role, even after Commissioner Winston Felix suggested that the agency may have been disqualified by public perception.

This stance led to mass demonstrations in the city and continued protests outside the Ministry of Home Affairs building, while it was the chief issue that prompted Opposition Leader Robert Corbin's disengagement from the constructive dialogue with President Jagdeo.

The diplomatic community and other groups had been trying to bridge the gulf between Jagdeo and Corbin on this matter and generally on the political dialogue and separate meetings were held last week with the two leaders. The government also appeared to have come under intense pressure from some western countries to mount a credible investigation of the claims and there were suggestions that assistance programmes could be affected unless this was done.

The allegations emerged after the murder of cattle farmer Shafeek Bacchus on January 4. Soon after, his brother publicly admitted to once being part of a group that was set up to hunt criminals. George Bacchus, who is believed to have been the real target of the drive-by shooting in which his brother was killed, claimed to have worked as an informant for the group. Bacchus admitted that he used his own money to locate criminals for the group, which also carried out several contract killings.

He said the group operated with the Minister's knowledge and the financial and tactical support of several senior policemen and prominent businessmen, who were also implicated.

He explained that the gang was formed to stem the tide of the crime wave that followed the February 23, 2002 jail-break, which included spectacular robberies and the murder of policemen.

There were also claims that Gajraj had been in regular phone contact with one of the suspected death squad members, Axel Williams, who himself was executed last year. Gajraj has never fully explained those contacts. The minister had also signed a gun upgrade approval for Williams.

Because of the allegations, both the local US and Canadian embassies revoked the travel visas of the Minister. The visa of ex-police Commissioner Floyd McDonald was also revoked by the US Embassy.

But Gajraj who yesterday continued to maintain his innocence said he had always advocated the need for an active investigation and probe of the allegations, though he noted that a statement has not been given to the police by anyone who claimed to have information.

He said he had hoped that those who claimed to have information to support the allegations would have presented statements and evidence to the police so that the truth could have been revealed to the nation. He said it was because of their failure to do this that the police have been unable to mount any investigation.

Gajraj nevertheless maintained that the allegations are false, malicious and calculated. He said he ignored them because of the heavy political overtones and sensationalism.

"My seeming silence or lack of strident public defence ought not to have suggested guilt or unwillingness to confront these claims. Neither have I sought to influence or interfere in any attempts by the Guyana Police Force to investigate these false allegations," he said, three weeks after he condemned both opposition politicians and sections of the media in an angry outburst in the Parliament.