Justice for Walter Rodney Committee formed, urges wide scope for fair inquiry

A number of concerned Guyanese and supporters from around the world have formed a Justice for Walter Rodney Committee and chief among its aims is ensuring that the recently-established Commission of Inquiry (COI) into his death is fair, transparent and does not dishonour his memory.

The newly-formed committee has already written to the commission with specific proposals to “enhance the process of a fair and transparent inquiry” and has offered its support towards this end.

In the press release announcing its launch yesterday, the committee revealed that it had urged that the commission ensure the widest participation from those domiciled in Guyana as well out of the country, pursue careful and thorough research, and invite impartial observers to observe and report on the process.

The release said support for the work of the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee has come from all five continents, and it identified a total of 51 members, but added that the list will continue to expand as more people from around the world request participation and support of the goals and objectives of the committee.

“As individuals with some institutional knowledge of the events of the period under the purview of the terms of reference of the commission of inquiry we have an immense body of experience and knowledge which may prove useful to any investigation and investigative body,” the committee said in its letter to the commission, dated April 14, 2014, where it offered its assistance.

The letter stated that most of the members of the committee were taken by surprise by the slim deadline for submission of statements, which was originally advertised in the newspapers in Guyana.

“Further, we submit that given the fact that more Guyanese are now living outside of the country than at home, the commission will need to take that into account as it prepares to seek information, and to have open hearings,” the letter said. The committee added that the fact that most of the people with knowledge of the period and of some of the events are either dead or now reside outside Guyana must give the commission pause, as it deliberates the logistics of conducting its business.

According to the committee, it is incumbent on the commission to consider the political environment of the 1970s which produced the activism of the people of Guyana against the state. “The nature and quality of the political state and state institutions governed by the ideology of party paramountcy, it should be recalled, produced attacks on democracy and violence against opponents and the wider populace,” it said.

The committee urged the commission to temper its approach to submission of statements and to establish a firm but reasonable hearing timeline that gives those intending to appear adequate time to plan. It is in this regard that it said hearings should be held in each county of Guyana as well as in Linden, and in the interior districts of the country.

“The commission must consider the difficulty of movement within Guyana, especially for people in the outlying districts. It should also consider the cost of internal transport, especially for low income Guyanese,” the release adding that hearings should also be planned for the Caribbean, North America, the United Kingdom, Suriname, and Venezuela, where Guyanese would have migrated in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Certainly the commission is aware that there are Guyanese enclaves (colonies) that have developed in all of these areas. The migration of Guyanese into these safe havens in the 1970s and 1980s has a direct connection to the reasons for Walter Rodney’s activism in the period under your purview,” the letter said.

The letter also urged the secretariat of the commission to research the period carefully, while expressing hope that capable staff with research capabilities is in place. It stated that the commission should access and research the court documents, court transcripts of proceedings of the arson and treason trials of the period. The commission also needs to apprise itself of the proceedings in the trial of Donald Rodney, it noted.

Further, the letter stated that the commission needs to study the imposition of the National Security Act, which it said gave sweeping powers to the state and its policing agencies. “The actions and activities of the police under this Act need to be researched by the commission. It must be remembered that apart from the murder by the police of Ohene Koama, another WPA activist Edward Dublin was also killed, and countless people including WPA activists were tortured by the police in that period. Further, the commission needs to be aware of reports at the time that the police would swoop into communities and shoot suspected criminals, who bled to death before being taken to the hospital,” the committee said.

Futher, it stated that the commission needs to obtain information from the police on the records and activities of the Special Branch and its nerve centre which functioned from its headquarters at Ogle, East Coast Demerara. It recalled that the “recognition handbook” which identified major WPA activists was produced by this unit of the police, and circulated to every police station in the country for study by each member of the force.

The committee letter also stated that the commission needs to access information on the “secret underground cells” at designated police locations designed specifically for political activists as well as to ferret out some of this information in the absence of a free press during the period. “The files of the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) are important, especially the reports, statements, and other documents that detailed incidents of police brutality, breaking up of public demonstrations, and brutalization of individuals and their families,” it noted, while also listing several local and regional print and broadcast media whose reports from the time should be accessed.

The committee also urged the commission to examine records of trade unions whose leaders and members were brutalized on orders from the state. “Of particular note was the report that CCWU president Gordon Todd, who was arrested at a trade union protest outside Guyana Stores in 1979, was taken over the Demerara River in an army helicopter and held upside down over the river. There is no reason why the commission should not investigate the log of the GDF helicopters in that period,” it said.

It added that the commission should take note of the nature and state of the public record and to this end the committee said that it should meet and summon the June 1980 staff of the Guyana Embassy in Washington, which seemed to be a “hot bed” at the time in the chain of command.

Meanwhile, Lord Eric Avebury – British Parliamentary Human Rights Groups, Amnesty International, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), the BBC, the Associated Press, the Caribbean Broadcasting Union, Americas Watch, Human Rights Watch, the Guyana Bar Association and the Caribbean Bar Association were listed as those institutions that may have made pronouncements on the situation in Guyana during that period under review and which could serve as impartial observers of the commission’s work.

According to the release, among the list of growing supporters of its work are the Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya Dr Willy Mutunga, who was a student of Walter Rodney at the University of Dar es Salaam; Professor Micere Mugo; Patrick Bond of South Africa; Professor Issa Shivji; and Larry Birns, Director of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs in Washington D.C.

Among the others listed were activists Eusi Kwayana, Andaiye, David Hinds, Alissa Trotz, Karen De Souza, Vanda Radzik, Moses Bhagwan and Wazir Mohamed.

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