Where necessary, police will be asked to protect death squad probe witnesses
-Chang Commission releases procedures, notice
Stabroek News
July 25, 2004

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The commission probing death squad allegations against Minister Ronald Gajraj is inviting submissions from the public and where it feels witnesses are in need of protection the Commissioner of Police will be asked to provide this.

The procedures of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry and the Public Notice accompanying it are contained in today's edition of the Sunday Stabroek. Witness protection has become a major issue in the wake of the murder of George Bacchus - the man who made the allegations against Gajraj and who could have been a key witness - and the Commission addressed this issue in the public notice.

"Where the Commission-ers perceive that a witness or potential witness is in need of protection in the interest of his own security, the commissioners shall request the Commissioner of Police to offer and provide such protection", the public notice says. Provision has also been made in the procedures where necessary for evidence to be taken in camera but the hearings will otherwise be public.

The Commission is chaired by Justice of Appeal Ian Chang and also comprises former Chancellor of the Judiciary Keith Massiah and Norman McLean and they will be inquiring as to "whether and to what extent there is evidence of a credible nature to support the allegations that the Minister of Home Affairs, Ronald Gajraj, has been involved in promoting, directing or otherwise engaging in activities which have involved the extra-judicial killings of persons".

With procedures similar to the Disciplined Forces Commission hearing, the general public is being invited to submit such information as may be of assistance to the inquiry to the Secretary, Presidential Commission of Inquiry, Conference Room of the Law Library, Supreme Court Compound, South Road and King Street, Georgetown.

The public notice said that subject to the "dictates of fairness" the information submitted "shall be treated in the strictest confidence". State-ments or memoranda must be submitted on or before Monday, August 30, 2004 and must bear the signature, full name and address of the informant.

Persons who may be in need of assistance in preparing statements and memoranda can receive such help from counsel for the commission or his assistant at the Law Library, Supreme Court Compound, South Road and King Street between 1 pm to 4 pm Monday to Friday. The commissioners shall commence hearings as early as conveniently possible after August 31.

In outlining its procedures, the Commission said the inquiry is "inquisitorial and not adversarial". The commissioners alone shall decide which witnesses would be called to give evidence or produce documents, books, plans etc. Persons wishing to testify before the Commission would be required to submit in advance written, signed statements or memoranda describing the nature of their proposed evidence.

Gajraj, according to the procedures, will be entitled under Section 13 of the Commission of Inquiry Act, Cap 19:03 to be represented by counsel throughout the entire inquiry.

"…No one, except the Commissioner, has a right to cross-examine any witness. Therefore, cross-examination, if any, by counsel for the commissioners or for any witness or person, will be allowed only with leave of the commissioners", the procedures said.

It further added that witnesses have no right to silence and therefore cannot withhold evidence except against self-incrimination. The commission added that since there is no provision in the Act precluding the use of evidence given in an inquiry in any future criminal or civil proceedings, the commissioners will inform all witnesses before the start of their testimony of their statutory right not to provide self-incriminating evidence.

A wide-ranging inquiry had been called for since earlier this year when the death squad allegations were first made by self-confessed death squad informant, Bacchus. He had gone public after his brother Shafeek Bacchus was killed in a drive-by shooting. George Bacchus had said that the bullets were meant for him because he had begun to complain that the death squad which was formed to kill wanted criminals had metamorphosed into a killing-for-hire outfit. George Bacchus would have been a key witness for the inquiry but he was gunned down as he slept in his house. Three persons have since been charged with his murder.

Opposition parties had urged broader terms of reference to help settle the issue of whether there was indeed a death squad but President Bharrat Jagdeo settled on narrower terms.

Gajraj has since stepped down to enable the inquiry to proceed without any appearance of interference.