The day I became a criminal
My column – by Adam Harris
January 28, 2007
The courts are places to be afraid of in the same way that little children are afraid of the dark. There is no child who would safely tell anyone that he or she loves the dark. Such is the fear that one would hardly find a child walking a dark street alone, except these days in the city, when street children abound.
I recall being afraid to even enter a room alone after a story session with some equally young friends. Of course, those were the days when electricity was confined to the city and perhaps those locations that accommodated sugar estates. A few homes of the affluent would have had generators but, for the greater part, the rural communities were in darkness.
And so it was that I had to climb the long steps, as my mother and grandparents used to describe visits to the High Court, which they called the Victoria Law Courts in those days. I had climbed those stairs on a number of occasions. I did so when some young lawyers were being admitted to the Bar; when there were Full Court assemblies for fallen judges or prominent members of the judiciary; when a few people were up before judges on criminal matters, including the Mark Benschop treason trial.
I was there when a judge sentenced a man to death for killing his daughter and dumping her body on some street in Albouystown. I was also there when Patricia Alves got that sentence for beating a woman to death, and when a few people sued newscasts with which I worked for libel.
This time, though, was different. I was not there to report on a criminal matter; I was there as a criminal. A judge had cited me for contempt.
On Christmas Eve Day, I published an article that raised some questions about a certain case. Anything that was published was not done with malice and, to my mind, represented fair comment. The judge thought otherwise, so there I was appearing before him to answer a charge that could have landed me in jail.
I often heard that the jail was not made for cats and dogs but for people. I often met prisoners who said that they would take the time and relax. On one occasion, a presiding judge had a man before him on a murder charge. The jury met and deliberated, and found the man guilty.
Lo and behold, the man either had to be braver than Saddam Hussein or plain stupid. He blurted out, “Man, don't worry wid all that long talk. Just seh wha' you got fuh seh and leh me go lang me f***ing way”. The court was stunned. The newspaper of the day, the Guyana Chronicle, editorialised that people were behaving that way because the death penalty was no longer being executed.
Members of the public joined in the criticism of the man's action, and of his slight for the court and the justice system. Before long, Donald Aulder and others made the walk of no return to the gallows. Memory fails me, but I believe that the foul-mouthed prisoner also made that walk.
I saw prisoners cry when judges handed down sentences. I saw people collapse, and I even saw people taking sentences stoically. I am not a criminal, and on one occasion I was arrested for dealing in contraband when I had nothing to do with breaking the law at the time.
Just for the curious, the arrest was made on February 4, 1979, and the case was dismissed the following August. A sergeant of police, who is no longer in the Guyana Police Force, actually lied before the magistrate because, as he put it, he needed a conviction.
For that charge, the powers that be decided that the ordinary court prosecutor was not good enough to prosecute me. They informed the late Magistrate Arthur Roberts that they wanted the state prosecutor, Toolsie Ragnauth. Of course, the matter had to be put on hold until the matters in the Berbice Assizes were disposed of.
But I have moved too far ahead. I was placed on bail, and I learnt for the first time that I could not bail myself. I saw the beckoning cell door of the Springlands Police Station. I got bail late that same day, and my bailor had to travel from New Amsterdam to Springlands to reach before the magistrate closed the court, or else I would have had to wait until the next court day, some five days later.
Standing on trial is never an easy thing for people like me, so here I was, not in a magistrate's court as was the case some 28 years ago, but in the High Court, having climbed the long steps.
The judge, on the first day, talked to me and I had a say, but after then I was just a number on the court. My lawyer did all the talking, and in the end the judge discharged the contempt.
But in the days before the discharge, I had friends who never failed to remind me that I should prepare myself to pick up Sqezy drops—those globs from the bottle of dishwashing liquid. Others talked about bringing my meals, and they were so many that, by the time I would have left the prison, I would have gained about 100 pounds.
But there were those who told friends of mine that they feel good when “big ones go to jail.” They must be terribly disappointed.
But what is contempt? The British, whose laws we follow to the letter, have all but got rid of contempt of court. I propose to share some of those cases with you to let you see some of the things reporters have said about judges, got hauled before the courts, and won because the law lords found that the overriding factor was freedom of expression.
Will any other reporter comment on the merits or demerits of cases to the extent that they would contend that a judge made a mistake? I cannot say. I would suppose the courts succeeded in putting the fear of God in them. Have I been muzzled? No. I would do the same thing, but I would be even more careful with my words.
I reserve the right to say that some things are wrong; and in any case, when a lawyer files an appeal, he is saying to a judge that he is questioning his judgement.