May 16, 2004
This will not do. The answer to the impasse over the death squad allegations is not a Presidential Commission of Inquiry set up unilaterally by the head of state. And it certainly isn't a Presidential Commission of Inquiry limited to investigating allegations implicating Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj at some level in unlawful killings. And it quite definitely isn't a separate inquiry at a "subsequent time" into the crime wave and its political linkages after February 23, 2002.
For some unfathomable reason the Government has decided to abandon the logic of its last publicly declared position on the question of the death squad - or at least, the publicly declared position of its Minister of Home Affairs - namely, that there should be a fair and impartial inquiry into the claims. In the current atmosphere, no unilateral decision on the part of the President in a matter of this kind will be seen by anyone outside the charmed circle of the ruling party as meeting the criteria of either 'fair' or 'impartial.' As such, therefore, how can Minister Gajraj possibly expect to clear his name via this route, no matter what the finding of the commission?
Let us be clear: the question at issue at this stage is not whether Messrs Ian Chang, Ivan Crandon and Norman McLean - the commissioners named by the President - are competent, fair and impartial, or whether under normal circumstances they would or would not be acceptable to the various opposition parties. The question at issue is that they have been appointed without any prior consultations with the Parliamentary opposition, and consequently, whatever their virtues, will not have the confidence of that opposition. Whatever else the Commission of Inquiry is perceived as, therefore, it will not be perceived as independent.
If that were not bad enough, there are the terms of reference of the inquiry, also unilaterally imposed, which as indicated above are limited to examining the evidence for Minister Gajraj's alleged role in "promoting, directing or otherwise engaging in activities which have involved the extra-judicial killing of persons." Since there will be no investigation, it seems, into the larger issue of the alleged operations of death squads and phantom squads, important evidence about them could conceivably be excluded because of the narrow focus on Mr Gajraj. What should have happened is that the probe into allegations relating to the Minister should have been subsumed under the larger investigation into the death squad issue as a whole.
Furthermore, as also stated above, it seems the Government wants a separate inquiry into the jailbreak of 2002, the criminal activity which followed it, and any possible political connections which there might have been to the events of that period. In other words, this appears to represent a de-coupling of the crime wave from the response to it, to allow by implication a full investigation into the major opposition party (presumably) alone, but not into any larger governmental context which may have facilitated unlawful groups in confronting the Buxton criminals.
The crime wave of 2002-03 and the responses to it are part of an organic whole, and if any truth at all is to emerge from the inquiry process, then the entire period has to come under examination. Politically too, there cannot be anything which appears one-sided; this is the first opportunity which has opened up in four decades offering the possibility, at least, for the two major parties to achieve a certain measure of catharsis, even if it is only in relation to a limited period. The function of this inquiry in a general sense should be to improve the political health of our ailing democracy, not the scoring of political points. The people of Guyana have had more than enough of that.
There are other objections to the President's arrangements for the Commission of Inquiry. There is no mention of hearings in camera, for example, or protection for witnesses and the like. For obvious reasons, those who are best qualified to give testimony to the commissioners, will be afraid to do so. In addition to the lack of protection, potential witnesses will have noted that the President has been aggressive in his defence of his minister over the past four months, and sometimes unpresidential in his condemnations of those calling for an inquiry.
As a consequence, he will hardly be viewed as unbiased, and his commission in turn, is likely to be regarded as his creature. Are we to infer, perhaps, that by ignoring security concerns, and by acting unilaterally, the powers-that-be anticipate that there will be a perception by the public of an inhospitable atmosphere at the hearings, no matter how well-meaning, even-handed and impartial the commissioners might be?
Politically, of course, this decision will cause a furore, and rather than relieving the tension in the political arena, it will only intensify it. Furthermore, it can only open the Government to entirely new allegations of an attempt at a cover-up, which will at the same time inject renewed life into the existing charges. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry is not a solution to anything - not to the political impasse, not to the damage to the Government's reputation, not to Minister Gajraj's loss of credibility, and not to the stress which Guyanese have to endure on account of the political situation.
Mr President, this commission simply will not fly.