Testing the death squad allegations Editorial
Stabroek News
July 26, 2004

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The Commission of Inquiry into the death squad allegations against Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj has set out the procedures by which it will operate and has published a formal notice inviting submissions from members of the public who may have information on this matter.

As limited as its terms of reference are and as narrow as the base of consultations which led to its creation, this panel should be given every opportunity to get to the crux of the allegations which have seeded poisonous tensions and suspicions in the country. Whether its terms of reference as constructed will permit any gainful attraction of evidence from the public is left to be seen and therefore the issue of whether this mechanism is adequate will have to be held in abeyance.

In a previous editorial in this newspaper it was suggested that the success or failure of this commission will rest in no small measure on the manner in which it sets out to inspire confidence and, indeed, inspire confidence. It has made a very useful start in its public notice in the ultimate paragraph where it says that wherever the need arises for a witness or potential witness before the commission to be afforded protection, the Commissioner of Police will be asked to provide this. This is a significant departure from the manner in which the police approached the security of the self-confessed informant George Bacchus who was murdered while he slept. When the Police Commissioner was asked at a press conference after Bacchus' murder why he had not been provided with protection when he clearly was a target, the Police Commissioner replied that Bacchus had not asked for any. The response was not an acceptable one and it is encouraging that the Commission has placed greater emphasis on protecting witnesses since in the present climate of fear and the continuing unexplained killings witnesses are unlikely to come forward without some measure of assurance of their safety.

But is this step adequate? Once a witness does come forward and is provided with security the need won't end there as the danger he/she faces will subsist indefinitely. In the year and a half of mayhem that followed the February 23 prison jail-break many lives were brutally and ruthlessly snuffed out at the end of the trigger-happy barrels of numerous criminal elements. Can it be safely assumed that these killers have fled and won't resurface to exact vengeance on witnesses who could give them away in the inquiry? Won't this force the issue of some comprehensive longer-term plan for witness protection with or without the rest of the region? The safety of witnesses will remain a troubling question and one that the Commission will have to always be cognizant of.

There is also another reservation. Many of the people spoken to by the media and who may have something to say have expressed fears over the integrity of the police force, some of whose members they accuse of complicity in the unexplained killings. For this reason they are unlikely to feel comfortable with protection from the police force and also because of the general belief that information given to the force tends to leak out through corrupt practices.

Safety aside, the core of the investigation by the commissioners is not a trivial issue. A minister stands accused of participation in the activities of a death squad, a charge he has steadfastly denied. By virtue of his position, were there to be even a whiff of confirmation or a shred of evidence in the allegations it would taint the entire administration and raise troubling questions about who knew what and when. The general public should therefore not dismiss the importance of the hearings that will begin in around a month.

While George Bacchus would certainly have been an important witness and his murder makes it all the more difficult to establish if there was truth in the stunning allegations he made against the Home Affairs Minister, based on the various reports carried in the press there would no doubt be others who could provide useful information.

The death squad scandal has caused deep societal divisions and it is for this reason that all those who have lobbied for investigations into the matter should step up and mobilise witnesses to test the allegations made against the minister.