Rule of law Under Threat in Guyana
A BATTLE is being played out between the institution which symbolizes law and order in Guyana, namely the Guyana Police Force (GPF), and criminal forces driving the drug enterprises which the government of the day appears unwilling to confront.
At stake is the most basic principle of Statehood, whether Guyana will continue to subscribe to the rule of law. The rule of law means the same rules govern all people. It is a precondition of a democratic state, and is designed to ensure that each person is protected from abuse of power, and that the presumption of innocence prevents any person being punished for false accusations or mistaken identity.
The continuing failure of the GPF or Joint Services operations either to quell violent crime – particularly in Indo-Guyanese communities - or indict drug traffickers has left the population sceptical, suspicious and scornful of the agencies responsible for law enforcement and the administration of justice.
This unhealthy situation encourages acceptance of cutting corners with respect to law enforcement and leaves people open to considering even more desperate measures. Moreover, the government reinforces such attitudes by ignoring drug criminals while condemning other types.
People currently voicing support for drug operations providing “protection” should thus think long and hard about the logical consequences for them, their families and communities.
Drug operations first and foremost protect their own illegal enterprises, and they will do this regardless of race or any other considerations. Everyone involved in the drug trade is breaking the laws of Guyana. They protect their illegitimate business by resorting to corruption and violence, safe in the knowledge that a blanket of fear prevents their victims from speaking out.
They will choose their targets, based on their own agenda. For all of these reasons, the only long-term guarantee of public safety is a reinvigorated and professional Guyana Police Force.
The following summary is drawn from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Report released in March 2006 and other sources, and reveals the degree to which Guyana has become enmeshed socially, politically and economically in international drug trafficking:
** 20-25 metric tons of cocaine pass through Guyana annually worth USD150M, yet no public cocaine seizure of more than 10 kilos was made in the last year.
** Drug mules (mainly women) are arrested on every North-bound route out of the Cheddi Jagan International Airport.
** U.S. Customs & Immigration have discovered cocaine concealed in every known export from Guyana.
** Drug barons have been granted timber concessions and duty-free privileges allowing them access to remote airstrips.
** Money-laundering legislation was resisted for several years.
** The commercial community is undermined by goods sold at impossibly low prices by drug-owned companies. Banks cannot compete with the informal, low interest loans made available to business persons.
** Guyana-based drug rings have been prosecuted in Barbados, the UK and the U.S.A, but no drug trafficker has been indicted in Guyana.
** A survey reported that 27% (almost 1 in 3) 11-19 year olds in Guyana have seen cocaine. The same survey reported 60% (almost 2 out of 3) children in Region One can identify the drug.
Over the past three months, Guyana has witnessed a growing campaign led by Roger Khan, allegedly a leading drug trafficker who has been indicted by a U.S. Grand Jury, to have the Commissioner of Police (CoP) removed from office. An official demand in recent days from Prime Minister Samuel Hinds that Commissioner of Police Winston Felix immediately respond to the contents of illegal tape-recordings of his private conversations moved the confrontation to a new level.
CoP Felix for his part has denied the voice on the tape to be his and asserted that never in his 36 years as a police officer had he conspired to frame anybody.
In April 2006 the first tape was circulated to all media houses purporting to be a recording of a telephone conversation between CoP Felix and a leading member of the major opposition party, the PNCR. While the tape was illegal and no one has claimed ownership, the voice on the tape is widely believed to be that of CoP Felix.
In late May a second tape surfaced, in which the person alleged to be CoP Felix appears to discuss planting drugs on a person to have her detained when she was leaving the country. If this were true it would have serious consequences for the rule of law in Guyana.
However, the timing of delivery of the tapes suggests that the motivation is not to protect Guyanese people, but to undermine CoP Felix because of the recent actions against drug operations.
To date the government has shown insufficient concern to investigate the source of the tapes and to encourage the person responsible to come forward so that the tapes can be verified, without which they can never be credible evidence.
The GPF inherited by CoP Felix in 2004 was riddled with political interference which respected no boundaries, a state of affairs which no doubt influenced a delay of almost two years in Felix assuming office after his original designation as CoP. The following excerpt from a Stabroek News Editorial (26 Sept. 2004) captures that malaise:
“Imagine a Jeopardy quiz programme, Guyana style: the clue is: this police official doesn’t follow the news; is unfamiliar with the name of an accused murderer, even when he has approved a gun licence for him only the month before; signs an upgraded firearm licence for the man after he has committed murder because he doesn’t know he has committed murder; believes that taxi-drivers should qualify to carry 9mm weapons; doesn’t know which police officers have been assigned to investigate which murder cases; is too busy to question the system of issuing gun licences; did not investigate reports of phone records between the Minister and a man accused of murder because he is uncertain of their legality;… and cannot pay attention to all drive-by killings…As citizens of Guyana followed the extraordinary performance by former COP Floyd McDonald (ag) a single question must have crossed their collective minds: just who is in charge of the police force during his tenure, because it surely wasn’t him…”
CoP Felix came into office determined to rehabilitate the GPF and to eliminate rogue elements, such as the ‘black clothes’ squad elements, and has placed hundreds of officers and ranks on charges before the courts. His assumption of office brought an immediate end to the unrestrained political interference which characterized his predecessor’s reign.
The government media has pursued a campaign to undermine CoP Felix, claimed widespread loss of public confidence, publicized calls for his resignation by the Private Sector Commission, highlighted the exact date of the end of his term in office and even suggested he may go before that date because of accumulated leave.
Roger Khan claimed in a full-page ad on May 12, 2006 that “During the crime spree in 2002, I worked closely with the crime-fighting section of the Guyana Police Force and provided them with assistance and information at my own expense. My participation was instrumental in curbing crime during this period.”
To date the government has shown no interest in investigating these claims. The period Khan refers to was one in which the bodies of many young men, mainly Afro-Guyanese, were found dead.
This taste of ‘phantom’ justice illustrated what is to be expected when the rule of law is set aside for vigilante justice. This approach to crime-fighting eventually forced the resignation of the Minister of Home Affairs. It is logical that were it to be prolonged it could consume the government itself.
Once the elements responsible for criminalising the economy are allowed to assume crime-fighting roles, the rule of law is decisively undermined. Vigilante forces cannot be controlled and in the long-term no one is safe.
All citizens have a right to presumption of innocence and a fair trial. That right obliges (and protects) the rest of the society from reducing themselves to equally inhuman status by resolving crimes outside of a fair trial framework.
1. Government leaders should balance their attention to the CoP with a more vigorous focus on the enormous illegality generated by drug traffickers.
2. Until any allegations are proven, CoP Felix should be allowed to continue his efforts to re-constitute the GPF as a professional institution free from political interference, corruption, and capable of effective crime-fighting.
3. External assistance to revitalize and reinvigorate the GPF is essential and urgently needed to tackle both violent crime and the drug trade.
4. The private sector and the government should develop a joint strategy for a transition from a drug-fuelled to a legal economy.
5. Civil society organisations, having lapsed into an extraordinary silence during this criminalizing of the society, must find its voice and assert its social responsibilities.
CHURCH WOMEN UNITED
CLERICAL & COMMERCIAL WORKERS UNION
COMMON GROUND GUYANA
COMMUNITY BASED REHABILITATION PROGRAMME – EBD UNIT
GENERAL WORKERS UNION
GUYANA COUNCIL OF CHURCHES
GUYANA TRADES UNION CONGRESS
GUYANA HUMAN RIGHTS ASSOCIATION