Commission of inquiry Editorial
Stabroek News
July 4, 2004

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The thing about any commission of inquiry is that it must inspire sufficient confidence in the public mind that it is both capable of finding the truth, and is willing to pursue a relentless investigation into finding the truth. One takes it for granted that the gentlemen appointed to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the allegations against Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj are committed to conducting a thorough inquiry; whether, however, they will be in a position to elicit all the information - or at least a substantial part of it - that needs to come out into the open about the operations of a death squad, given the narrow confines in which they have been asked to operate, is not so certain.

On Friday, when he announced the appointment of the commission, the President seemed totally oblivious to the new circumstances in which it would have to conduct its hearings, and as adamant as ever that there wasn't any substance to the criticisms that had been made the first time around concerning the lack of protection for witnesses, the limited terms of reference of the body and the absence of consultation prior to its constitution.

So why did the President not consult the parliamentary opposition on the appointment of the commission? According to GINA in a press release issued on Friday, the answer is that since it was a presidential commission, he wasn't required to do so. Furthermore, said the agency, the President informed the media that efforts were made to contact Corbin on the matter, all of which were futile. And on the question of whether consultation would not have brought added credibility to the process, GINA reported that the President "dismissed speculation" that this was so.

And why did the terms of reference of the commission have to be so narrow? The answer given to that by our head of state, reported GINA, is that the inquiry had to be very specific because it's not a human rights issue, but rather a matter of criminal allegations against Minister Gajraj. And in answer to those who might be adhering to the view that the commission's credibility would suffer if witnesses didn't turn up, he replied (although GINA did not report it) that he didn't see how that would reflect on the credibility of the commission.

So here we have a President who can't see why he should consult if the relevant article in the constitution doesn't specifically require him to do so; can't work out the connection between consultation and the commission's credibility; doesn't know how to get in contact with the Leader of the Opposition; doesn't recognize that the allegations relating to a death squad are a human rights issue and not just a criminal one; and doesn't appear too concerned that witnesses might not turn up in front of the commission. While he certainly did not intend to convey the impression, and while the impression he conveyed might not have reflected his true state of mind, he surely did not sound on Friday as if his heart was in uncovering the truth, whatever that might be.

And we are at a stage where nothing less than the truth (or a good portion of it) will do. Now that Mr George Bacchus is beyond the reach of earthly cross-examination, and considering that the circumstances under which he met his end are likely to discourage witnesses from coming forward, there is no guarantee that we will get to the bottom of even the limited question which the commissioners have been asked to investigate. The point about the credibility of the commission (as opposed to that of the individual commissioners, which is not in question) is that if it has not been accepted by all sides of the divide before it starts its work, and on the basis of the evidence presented cannot produce clarifications of events, for example, then far from easing tensions, it could itself become a source of tension.

The two central issues for investigation have always been the provenance, evolution and connections of the death squad, and the origins and evolution of, and connections to the violence on the East Coast after February 23, 2002. In fact, the two things are an organic whole. The allegations against the Minister are only one aspect of the matter. So even if the commissioners do uncover something in relation to the larger questions, it still may not be the whole story. And if they find part of the story within the limitations of their terms of reference, what is the President proposing to do: go back and hold another commission of inquiry? He has already indicated that he might be open to setting one up to look into the criminal activity centred on Buxton, but he appears to be studiously avoiding any larger inquiry into the death squad as a whole.

And as for the matter of providing security for witnesses, as is clear from what is said above, the President had nothing to offer on this front. He has again left it to the commissioners to decide their own procedures, and presumably consider whether some hearings should be in camera, etc, at least giving some cover to potential informants.

The one item of good news for the People's Movement for Justice in all of this, is the appointment of Mr Keith Massiah to the commission, a man of proven legal acumen and experience in official capacities, who as a judge also demonstrated his independence of mind. While the President once again has chosen a path of no compromise, at this stage the opposition should nevertheless co-operate with the commission, while expressing its reservations about the way in which it was set up and the limitations of its mandate, and reserving judgement on the outcome of its hearings. If something comes out of the exercise, then the situation would have advanced somewhat, and depending on what is found, a position on how to proceed could then be formulated. If nothing much comes out of it, then at least the President has no excuse that the PNCR in particular is responsible for any failure to throw light on yet another dark chapter in our history.