President launches probe of claims against Gajraj
-Justice Chang to chair commission of inquiry
Stabroek News
May 15, 2004

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A Presidential Commission of Inquiry has been set up to look into Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj's alleged involvement in extra-judicial killings.

"...I have decided to put in place mechanisms for the conduct of an inquiry into the allegations of criminal misconduct against him," President Bharrat Jagdeo announced yesterday, adding that the government would consider investigating the 2002 jailbreak, the plight of victims of criminal violence and political linkages to the 2002/2003 crime wave. His announcement at the Office of the President came after his government had refused numerous calls for an impartial inquiry into the allegations made against Gajraj.

Jagdeo, who read from a prepared text before he left without entertaining questions, said he had written to the Opposition Leader Robert Corbin to inform him of the creation of the commission. He said he was unable to make telephone contact with Corbin who was out of the country until midday yesterday.

Jagdeo said the majority of the international community and some local stakeholders had been informed of his inclinations and have also been made aware of his decision.

But an official of the PNCR, which has been pressing for months for an inquiry, told Stabroek News last evening that the unilateral decision by the president is unacceptable. The party is expected to detail its position on this development shortly.

Three-member panel

The commission is being set up under the Commissions of Inquiry Act Chapter 19:03. President Jagdeo has named Justice of Appeal Ian Chang S.C. as the Chairperson of the all-Guyanese commission, which will also include former army Chief-of-Staff, retired Major General Norman McLean and retired Deputy Commissioner of Police Ivan Crandon, who also chairs the Police Service Commission. File folders with copies of the Inquiries Act, the terms of reference for the probe, the President's statement and the CVs of the commissioners were issued to reporters after Jagdeo's statement.

Though he maintained his confidence in the embattled minister, who has been accused of having knowledge of the operations of a group which targeted criminals, Jagdeo said that it is necessary to stop the trial by the media and the political agitation surrounding the affair, thus his decision to put immediate measures in place for the creation of the commission.

Its terms of reference will be to 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."

Gajraj issued a statement last week revealing that he had requested the impartial probe. His statement came after months of public pressure for the government to act on the allegations, which were made by a self-confessed ex-informant for what has becomes know as the death squad.

The PNCR broke off dialogue with the government because of the impasse on the death squad issue, among other reasons and has been engaged with other groups in a series of protests against Gajraj.

The opposition parties sent off a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on the same day Gajraj made his statement and requested help for an impartial inquiry of the allegations and other matters, including the violence that followed the February 2002 jailbreak.

Move seen as U-turn

Until the statement yesterday the government had been steadfastly dismissive of calls for an independent probe of the allegations, saying that not a shred of credible evidence existed. President Jagdeo had also attacked the opposition and sections of the media over their repeated calls for the death squad allegations to be taken seriously.

Stabroek News has been told by a government source that Gajraj approached the president about four weeks ago with his proposal to proceed on leave so an inquiry could be held to clear his name. But the source said the president was not too keen on Gajraj making a statement since it was felt that it would lead to the belief that it was the result of street protests which have been organised to press for an inquiry.

Yesterday, the president assured that there would be no interference by the government in the work of the commission, which will determine its own procedures for the conduct of the inquiry and is expected to be public. Its findings are also expected to be made public on completion of the work of the commission, which will begin at a time to be determined by the chairman.

If the minister is found culpable in any way, he is expected to face the full consequences of the law.

"I call on all concerned with resolving this issue to fully support my decision and the subsequent work of this Commission of Inquiry," said Jagdeo.

The minister is expected to proceed on leave, as indicated in his letter, when the commission begins its work. Another government minister will act in his stead, while it is yet to be determined whether Minister Gajraj will continue to perform his parliamentary functions while on leave.

An issue of contention may be the commission's terms of reference, which the PNCR had said must be negotiated and agreed upon by local stakeholders.

Also, the composition of the commission may not find favour with the opposition PNCR, which has been advocating for an international presence on any panel inquiring into the allegations. But a government source said the administration feels affronted by the idea that an international presence would give credibility to what is an internal investigation.

On Wednesday, the United Nations local office issued a statement urging the political leaders of the country to use the window of opportunity opened by Gajraj's request to guarantee an independent and transparent inquiry of the death squad allegations.

It said that over the past months Guyana's prospects had been blighted by the death squad allegations and the political impasse. "These developments are of major concern to the UN and the international community", the statement said. It added that Gajraj's offer had to be followed up by the implementation of a "commonly-accepted approach towards the just and transparent resolution of this matter".

The president meanwhile noted that there can be no doubt about the fairness, competence and the impartiality of the commissioners, who he said have been recognised for their competence in legal and law enforcement disciplines.

It is said that the three commissioners were selected as the most impartial from a list of some eighteen eligible persons.

The government source said that there should be no problem with the members of the commission since the PNCR agreed for Chang to be head of the Disciplined Forces Commission, while neither McLean nor Crandon can be accused of being supporters of the ruling party.

Chang, who Jagdeo said agreed to serve on the commission with some reluctance, has been a Justice of Appeal in the appellate court for the last four years. He has served as acting Director of Public Prosecutions in the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions where he worked for twenty years until 1998. He was also Chairman of the Disciplined Forces Commission.

McLean, the Human Resources Manager for Omai Gold Mines and deputy chairman of the Ethnic Relations Commission, headed the Guyana Defence Force from 1979 until 1990. He also served as a Deputy Commissioner in the Police Force and holds military and police honours in Guyana, Venezuela and Great Britain.

Crandon, a Second World War veteran, was former Deputy Commissioner in charge of operations in the police force. He still heads the Guyana Legion and holds several military medals and decorations, including a war medal and a Star of Italy for his service in World War II.

Several months ago Gajraj's visas for the United States and Canada were revoked, sources say, because of the concerns that those countries had over the death squad furore. There were also suggestions that pressures of various types could be brought to bear on the government to yield to the demand for an impartial inquiry. Gajraj's statement came just a day after it was announced in Washington that Guyana was not on the list of countries to benefit from a new tranche of American aid from the Millennium Challenge Account. Prior to that, Georgetown was said to have been in a good position to benefit from this aid.