Concerns were yesterday expressed by PNCR attorney Basil Williams about the sudden appearance of a copy of the extension of the life of the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in the Official Gazette, just after he had raised the issue.
Addressing members of the Commission yesterday morning, Williams inquired about the extension of the life of the inquiry as the originally designated four-month timeframe had elapsed. This resulted in an almost hour-long delay in the start of the day’s proceedings as counsel for the commission and members of the secretariat scampered to find the publication. Based on the copy that this newspaper saw, the publication was made in the Official Gazette on June 24 for the commission to be extended until September 30. It raises the possibility that testimony before the CoI prior to June 23 could be considered not to have been covered by the extension.
When the session began, Williams said that he had earlier raised the issue of the expiration of the four-month timeframe, which the president had stipulated for everything before the commission to be completed unless otherwise extended. He said that under the laws, the date of publication in the Gazette is when the subject matter becomes effective.
Williams added that the CoI is a creature of statute and as such the president had the power to create a commission under Chapter 19:03 of the Laws of Guyana. According to him, this CoI was listed in the Gazette on February 8, 2014 and by June 8 there should had been an extension in the Gazette for the life of the commission to complete its work. He stated that several checks were made on the online gazette website. He said that he checked with the Office of the President (OP) earlier before the CoI started and was told that neither in May nor in June had there been any publication of the extension of the life of the CoI.
“Nonetheless sir we see a … copy of a Gazette here saying that it was extended on the 23rd of June. But even if that were so we still have a problem in relation to having been working after the 8th of June (and) if you take it up to the 24th June”, he said, adding that this means that the commission would have been working unlawfully and without remit from June 8 to June 24.
He said that in this regard all evidence that was taken during that period would have to be ratified and that subsequent ratification can only be effected by an act of Parliament. He said that when this Bill goes to Parliament for ratification of the period which was not covered by the publication, there would have to be agreement within parliament to ratify the work done during that period, a not so subtle hint at the opposition majority in the House.
Williams stressed that he made inquiries both last week and this week and nothing could be found. “It is only when I raised this matter again with you sir and your commissioners that some attempt was made to get the Gazette…the Office of the President has control of this Gazette process”, he said.
According to Williams, if it is accepted now that this has been done validly, “we still have to cover the period between the 8th of June and 23rd of June and we have taken a lot of witnesses.
The Chairman Sir Richard Cheltenham, in response, pointed out that Williams raised the issue about three days ago. He said that at that time he advised that he was in receipt of a letter from President Donald Ramotar which stated that the life of the commission had been extended. He stated that the commission is now in possession of that Gazette enlargement.
Lead Counsel for the Commission Glen Hanoman pointed out that no evidence was taken after June 6, adding that it will only be June 23 that would be in contention as the extension was published in the Gazette on June 24. He pointed out, however, that according to the Gazette the extension takes effect from June 23. “So I don’t know if any pieces of evidence has been affected,” he said. June 23rd was the date that Robert Allan Gates was cross-examined.
Williams insisted that during checks what was being presented to the commission as the Gazette extension was not found whether online or in hard copy. “It is only this morning when we raised it again…now you come on this day when it is raised again and it seems to be a backdate…”, he said before Hanoman asked if it was being alleged that the Gazette that was presented yesterday was a forgery.
The Chairman stated that he had no reason no doubt that it came from OP or its authenticity. He later said that he has to be advised on this matter by the commission’s counsel, adding that the president has his competent advisors from the Attorney General’s chambers.
“What has been done has been properly done. I don’t have to make any ruling. It is not within my competence to do that …” he said. He stated that he had taken note of the concerns expressed and proposed that the hearings proceed. “I propose to proceed. If you remain aggrieved you know what to do”, he said.
Meanwhile, Williams also raised the issue of the fragmentary nature of evidence “littering” the CoI hearings. He pointed out that Crime Chief Leslie James, WPA member Karen De Souza, Major General (retired) Norman Mc Lean and WPA member Tacuma Ogunseye are yet to complete their evidence and yet the commission has been identifying fresh witnesses. James and the rest have so far only given their evidence in chief and have to return to be cross-examined.
“That is a problem for the PNC…It can be interpreted to be facilitating propaganda in the media because it can’t be fair to us for a witness to come a month ago…and then we don’t have a chance to challenge the witness up to now”, he said.
He said that he came prepared to deal with Ogunseye because he was given the assurance that he would return to the stand yesterday to facilitate the evidence of Captain Gerry Gouveia. Ogunseye gave his evidence in chief on Wednesday.
The Chairman pointed out that while this is a concern since it gives the appearance of “untidiness”, they still have to work according to the availability of the witnesses.
The issue was again raised towards the end of yesterday’s hearing after it was announced that Nigel Westmaas would be the next witness. He takes to the stand on Monday and it was explained that because of his job he is only available for a short period of time.
Ogunseye, who was present yesterday was told by the chairman that they “had horridly miscalculated,” how long Gouveia would have been on the stand. He was told that he would probably have to return sometimes during the next session which begins on July 28.
Williams interjected, questioning once again why a new witness was being allowed to take the stand while others are still to be cross-examined. He said that the notice that he has was for trade unionist Lincoln Lewis to appear on Monday. It was later clarified that Lewis’ attorney had been informed that he will not be appearing on that date.
“I am in disagreement with imposing any other witness before Mr Ogunseye is witness”, Williams said.
The chairman stated that while that would be the ideal situation, Westmaas is scheduled to leave sometime next week and as such the commission wants to take his evidence before he leaves.
“All I am saying is that it is unfair to have evidence against the People’s National Congress Reform, its functionaries without it being tested and you keep imposing fresh witnesses, to bring fresh allegations and we are not having an opportunity to discredit them and we are saying that it is not fair to us…,” he said, adding that there are three counsel for the commission and “we are not getting service.”