Opposition declares Gajraj probe a farce
Stabroek News
May 16, 2004

Related Links: Articles on 'wrong man' death
Letters Menu Archival Menu

Opposition parties have rejected outright the Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the Minister of Home Affairs' alleged involvement in unlawful killings, calling it a farce and a public relations exercise.

They say it does not meet the minimum standards they outlined to the government and other stakeholders.

"We... do not accept the Presidential Commission of Inquiry... we do not accept the Terms of Reference, we will not co-operate with its functioning and we will not accept its findings and/or recommendations," the parliamentary opposition parties declared in a statement that was issued after they met yesterday morning.

"We urge President Jagdeo to reconsider this most dangerous and provocative course of action which he has taken in the context of a very volatile situation in Guyana," the PNCR, WPA and ROAR Guyana Movement noted in a joint statement. The Guyana Action Party did not attend the meeting at Congress Place.

The statement came one day after President Bharrat Jagdeo named a three-member panel to determine if there is any evidence to support the allegations against Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj. The minister yesterday announced that he was proceeding on leave to facilitate the investigation.

Gajraj has been accused of having knowledge about the operations of a death squad, credited with the murder of a number of wanted men over the last two years, and the abduction/murder of several others.

The opposition statement said, "We have individually and together repeatedly stated that we will not accept any [public relations] driven, unilaterally imposed inquiry... which does not satisfy our minimum conditions for independence and for internationally accepted standards and norms."

As in their combined letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan they detailed their minimum requirements for the inquiry, which they want conducted by highly-respected individuals of unblemished integrity and who are acceptable to the major stakeholders.

They have proposed that the inquiry must allow a role for Caricom and other international organisations and must be accompanied by a credible and secure witness protection programme; have the power to take evidence in camera as well as in public; and the authority and resources to take evidence inside and outside of the country.

The commission will decide its own procedures, but it is unclear if the act under which it has been set up caters for the other conditions outlined. One legal mind says there is nothing in the act that says the commission cannot meet those requirements.

However, the statement noted that the president did not consult the parliamentary opposition parties or any of the social partners on the Terms of Reference of the Commission of Inquiry or on its composition.

"The vast majority of the people of Guyana are looking to the president to do the right thing in the national interest. At a time when the international community is taking initiatives to help, it is worrying that Mr. Jagdeo is flying in the face of both local and international expectations," said the opposition groups.

On Wednesday the UN local office issued a statement urging the political leaders of the country to guarantee an independent and transparent inquiry of the death squad allegations.

The UN said the request earlier by the minister for an independent investigation of the allegations, had to be followed up by the implementation of a "commonly-accepted approach towards the just and transparent resolution of this matter."

This position was maintained by UNDP Resident Representative Jan Sand Sorenson yesterday.

He told Stabroek News that the international community does not want to sit and judge, though there are hopes that both sides will continue to pursue the issues to reach a mutual understanding.

The president has named Justice of Appeal Ian Chang as the chair of the commission, which will include former army Chief-of-Staff Major General (rtd) Norman McLean and Chairman of the Police Service Commission Ivan Crandon.

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."

But the parliamentary opposition describe the terms of reference as derisory, totally unacceptable and provocative.

"They are woefully inadequate, narrow and not intended to ensure that the truth will be unearthed and the guilty brought to justice."

It was also noted that the terms of reference are restricted to the culpability of the minister and do not include the issues that led to the violence that engulfed the society since 2002, including the violent crime and manifestations of insecurity and communal violence in communities such as Buxton, Annandale, Enterprise.

This had been one of the conditions set out in the letter to the UN Secretary General. The president, during his announcement on Friday, said at a subsequent time such an inquiry would be given serious consideration.

The opposition also looked down on the president's pronouncement on the innocence of the minister, which they see as an exercise of undue influence over his appointees, whom they urged to recuse themselves.

"[We] are disappointed that the three gentlemen named have compromised their reputations and integrity by allowing themselves to be sullied by association with this farce," they remarked before listing a series of conditions for an independent and impartial commission.

These conditions exclude: persons who have worked closely with the police hierarchy, whose actions will come up for review; persons who serve on bodies responsible for the employment of members of the police force; any person who has volunteered to be in an advisory security group to aid the president during the period under review; persons who may have advised or served as counsel for persons against whom allegations have been made in connection with death squads; anyone with business interests dependent upon the discretionary authority of the state; persons who may be called upon to sit in judgement on matters as a consequence of the findings of the commission; anyone with unresolved outstanding issues which depend upon the government for conclusion.

The parties had also expressed concern over the current status of the minister and the nature of his relationship with the National Assembly.

Though his functions in the parliament were not addressed, in a statement issued yesterday through the Government Information Agency (GINA), Gajraj said he would proceed on leave, in keeping with his earlier announcement.

"On Friday, May 7 I made public my willingness to proceed on leave to allow for [an] impartial inquiry... Consistent with my earlier statement, I will be proceeding on leave from a current date," he said.

Gajraj welcomed the creation of the commission and assured his full co-operation. But he said it must not be viewed as an about-face on the part of the president.

He added that the opposition's call for his removal from office must be noted, since it ignores the course of natural justice.

"They tried me, convicted me and sentenced me before any investigation. I do not intend to resign on the basis of unfounded and scandalous allegations in sections of the media. I will not be lynched," he declared.

The opposition parties' statement said they had been calling for Gajraj to be removed for several months to avoid interference and to facilitate the establishment of an independent and impartial commission so that the facts of the matter can be made known.

Gajraj again maintained his innocence of involvement in unlawful extra-judicial killings, saying he had always acted in accordance with the laws of Guyana.

Since the allegations first surfaced almost four months ago there have been calls for an independent investigation by civil society groups such as the Guyana Bar Association (GBA), the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA), the Guyana Council of Churches and a coalition body, the People's Movement for Justice (PMJ), which represents unions and other groups.

These groups are divided on the president's announcement, although the majority seems to look at his decision to set up an independent commission with favour.

The PMJ in a statement that was worded similarly to that of the opposition parties also rejected the commission and promised to continue its agitation until there is nothing less than a panel which meets international norms:

"The PMJ views the president's actions as nothing but a farce. His actions would have been accepted as credible if he had chosen to involve opposition political parties and other stakeholders in a process of consultation to arrive at a Commission and Terms of Reference acceptable to all."

The PMJ said it is not comforted by either the terms of reference of the commission, or those selected to serve by the president. Again it expressed similar sentiments to the opposition parties, but went further to claim to be in possession of information that raises serious doubts about the ability of the persons selected to act independently and impartially. It expressed hope that they would recuse themselves.

GBA President Khemraj Ramjattan welcomed the minister's offer and the government's move, though he noted that it is almost three-and-a-half months late.

"It's better late than never [because] it is indeed the proper thing to have. But what has diluted the effort is the lateness of the call, which has come under pressure from opposition parties, civil society and the western nations," said the bar president. But he did express some reservations about the protection of witnesses, noting that many people who have made allegations about the police and senior functionaries of the government may be unwilling to come forward unprotected. Also of concern is the financing of the commission, which the GBA hopes will not be a hindrance to its work. Its chairman, Justice Chang is viewed by the Guyana Bar Association as an individual of credible character, according to Ramjattan, who noted that he personally knew nothing untoward about the other members selected to serve on the commission.

Ramjattan, in his personal capacity, was however critical of the conditions set out by the parliamentary opposition parties for the composition of the commission.

He perceived that the numerous conditions would serve to narrow the persons who could qualify to serve, although he said he can understand some of the opposition's reservations.

"[But] we have to have some sort of trust and confidence in the commission..." he added.

Ramjattan had advocated that an inquiry could have been done by the sectoral committee of parliament responsible for Home Affairs, the Social Services Committee. He still stands by this position, noting that it would allow for an inquiry with greater scope and greater scrutiny.

Under the parliamentary arrangement he said the minister would be bound to answer all questions posed to him without resort to protection from self-incrimination.

Whereas, in the case of the commission he pointed out that the minister would have the right to legal representation and protection from self-incrimination.

"The institution that exists at parliament ought to have been utilised by the opposition... because then he would be bound to answer the hard questions from the same members of the opposition," he said.

Like the bar, the Guyana Council of Churches hopes the commission would be embraced and given a chance to work, its Chairman Bishop Juan Edghill told Stabroek News.

Edghill said his association welcomed the president's initiative, just as they welcomed the minister's call after he realised the need for an impartial, independent and transparent inquiry.

"The three commissioners are all outstanding Guyanese who have served the country in different ways... and we just trust people can embrace the fact that the process is about to begin... and we should give it a chance to work," he said.

Mike McCormack said the executive of the Guyana Human Rights Association is still deliberating over the announcement and will make its position known shortly.