Death squad probe-Some witnesses feel testifying could endanger them
-lawyers say they should come forward

Stabroek News
August 4, 2004

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Terrified that they may become targets, potential witnesses for the inquiry into death squad allegations are unsure about coming forward without any real guarantee of protection.

But two well-known attorneys are encouraging witnesses to provide any incriminating evidence they may have to the three-member presidential commission, which they believe has taken a practical approach befitting the sensitive subject matter.

"I'm afraid. I am afraid for my life... I could die..." says one potential witness, a single-parent mother who has grown even more afraid after recent unexplained killings.

At least four persons have been shot dead by unknown assailants during the last month, the most recent case being that of a gas station owner slain in front of his home last Wednesday night.

The public has been invited to submit information in writing that may be useful to the commission as it attempts to fulfil its terms of reference, which is to determine whether there is any credible evidence to support the allegations that Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj was involved in the activities of a death squad. The minister has maintained his innocence and has since proceeded on leave to facilitate the investigation by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Justice of Appeal Ian Chang and comprising Norman McLean and Keith Massiah.

'It's not only me, it's my children'

Potential witnesses are required to submit their statements with their full names and addresses to the commission, which promises to treat them with the strictest confidence. In instances where the commission believes a witness is in need of protection, the commissioner of police will be asked to provide it.

Hearings will begin as early as possible after the expiration of the deadline for submissions, which is at the end of this month.

But while another potential witness is willing to come forward, she says she fears for the safety of her family.

"I'm not afraid, but y'know it's not only me... It's my children," says the woman, who believes a close relative was abducted then murdered by the group.

Her relative's bullet-riddled body was found dumped on a deserted roadway. But she says this is not what is motivating her to speak out, rather the evil done by men who murdered for money.

She says also she knows others with information but they are too scared to come forward. "You don't know who you can trust... people are willing to come forward but they are scared. I am not afraid for myself, but [I] have to be for my children."

Since publication of the proposed procedures the main opposition PNCR as well as the WPA have criticised the commission for failing to adequately cater for the security needs of witnesses.

However, attorney Khemraj Ramjattan thinks the proposals for the protection of witnesses are practical, given the commission's financial and legislative limitations.

"I do not foresee how they can make a commitment towards witness protection when they are not going to be in control of the finances and personnel to [oversee] it," says the attorney, who doubts that the government would ever confer such powers upon the investigating body.

"That is why it is very practical for them to take the position they have taken. To call on the Police Commissioner, that is very sub-optimal a position, but it is as best as it could get at this stage...

"If we wanted witness protection we would have to go to Parliament to pass laws and then a supplementary budget to fund it and that could take time. That is why in this context then, I hardly foresee anything better being done..."

Duty bound

Attorney Anil Nandlall served on the Disciplined Forces Commission, which conducted a ten-month review of the armed forces in a manner similar to that proposed by the commission of inquiry.

Although it can be argued that the subject matter of the inquiry is highly sensitive, the attorney considers that there is currently no agency other than the police force that is endowed with the legal power and the public duty to offer protection to citizens.

Nandlall believes every citizen with evidence is duty bound to approach the commission. In this particular instance, he says, the commission has no such power and therefore if protection is needed it must come from the police.

"The commission has no other choice or alternative available to it but to secure the assistance and cooperation of the police force in this respect," he reasons, explaining witness protection involves using powers like arrest and detection and the use of deadly force where necessary.

But the issue of witness protection assumed a new dimension almost two months ago when the man who originally sparked the allegations was murdered in his bed.

George Bacchus first made disclosures about the existence of a death squad at the start of the year after his brother was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Following his death almost two months ago, persons have become more apprehensive about coming forward with information to support his claims.

However, Nandlall notes that in every murder case a preliminary inquiry is held and witnesses testify before a magistrate who then decides whether or not to commit the accused to stand trial before a judge and jury.

"The time between the preliminary inquiry and the trial is some times about five years. I don't hear these witnesses being killed, at least not in Guyana in recent years... except George Bacchus," he said.

He thinks every murder trial holds potential danger for witnesses which would require the entire criminal justice system to be re-configured to guard against such risks.

"There is no mechanism outside the police force and it is not conceivable that one will be set up in time. The question is this: Do you stall the start of the commission for something that will not be set up for years, that will need finances and training that our people have not even been exposed to...?"

Rule of natural justice

Apart from her worry about safety, one of the witnesses who spoke with this newspaper was concerned about the commission's proposal to provide the minister with copies of witnesses' statements before they are called upon to testify at the hearings.

"I wouldn't mind him having the statement... But it's him knowing who I am," the woman says.

However, Nandlall contends that since the investigation could in theory lead to the institution of a murder charge against the minister; it was essential for him to know the case against him to prepare a defence.

"It is a fundamental rule of natural justice and a constitutional requirement that a person must not only be told of what the charge is against him but must also be afforded a fair and reasonable opportunity to prepare a defence to those charges and that is all I understand the commission of inquiry to be doing," he says.

In fact, he notes that the commission is bound to do so by law, which provides for defendants even in minor criminal offences to be served with the statements of the case against them.

"Unless you want to have an inquiry designed to lynch people then you have to abide by the principles of law and fairness which are attendant to any inquiry which may result in the deprivation of the liberty of the subject."

In a recent feature, Stabroek News randomly asked ten people whether they would come forward if they had evidence about the existence of a death squad and the minister's complicity.

Nine of them said they would not come forward if they had any information.

"Though I want to see change in the country if I testify I don't know if I would live to testify again on another day," said one of the interviewees who felt her public duty was not worth risking her family's safety.

"No, I would not testify if I had evidence because I want to live a comfortable life. I should be able to walk around and go to work in peace..." said one woman who doubted that anything would come of the commission of inquiry, in any case.

"I would not come forward even if I was offered protection because how are they going to protect people when everybody knows everybody? How are they really going to protect you?" another asked.

The only person willing to come forward believed it to be the best way to usher in a change, though she did acknowledge the consequences. "For everything to come to an end you must testify and we must also remember that there would be consequences that come along with change."

Ramjattan also encouraged witnesses to give evidence to the commission, except in instances where there is substantial evidence that he or she might be killed as a result of the testimony.

"Assuming that they have evidence I would wish them to come forward otherwise the country would go through a process of silence through fear.

"Guyanese must become brave to start making the country a better one and I believe there are very many fearless people who ought to exhibit that fearlessness to come forward and tell the commission of whatever..."

He thinks if nothing comes to the fore it would serve to perpetuate the activities of such a group, which he feels is more dangerous.

"If people know of it they must come forward and let us knock this thing out of our culture forever. You got to be brave in a democracy. If you are not brave in a democracy you are not doing your duty..." he says.

"If after Walter Rodney's death Cheddi Jagan and all his supporters stopped fighting what would have happened?"