The Guyana Police Force (GPF) yesterday denied any wrongdoing in attempting to disperse a protest by rice farmers along the Essequibo Coast, including the stripping of Region Two councilor Naith Ram during a confrontation.
Police eventually resorted to using tear smoke to disperse the protestors and 19 persons, including Ram, were in custody up to yesterday. “The Guyana Police Force recognises the rights of citizens to peaceful protest, but when such protests degenerate into a set of unlawful activities that infringe on the rights of other citizens the police will, of necessity, have to take the appropriate action in order to maintain law and order,” it said in a statement yesterday on the altercation, which had its genesis in a protest organised by the Essequibo Paddy Farmers’ Association to press demands for better drainage and payment from millers. Minister of Agri-culture Dr. Leslie Ramsammy was last evening reported by the Government Information Agency (GINA) as saying that an amicable agreement on payment for paddy was reached between millers and farmers at two meetings during the past week. Ramsammy, who suggested that some of the farmers were motivated by political elements, urged them to continue dialogue, while expressing the hope that much of the debt would be reduced soon. He pointed out that in the past millers owed payment to farmers for more than a year, but through working with them, by the beginning of 2014 all payments for 2013 had been paid off, GINA added.
Though police said that some of the protestors attacked them and threw several ranks into a nearby trench, the Alliance for Change (AFC) yesterday condemned the police as well as the government over their handling of the protest. The Ministry of Home Affairs, meanwhile, lashed out at the opposition party, which it accused of manipulating the plight and grievance of rice farmers and pushing them to block the road, thereby disrupting traffic.
Ram, Chairman of the Essequibo Paddy Farmers’ Association, had told Stabroek News on Friday evening that he and two other farmers were assaulted by the police during a confrontation near the Three Friends bridge. “My pants was torn down. I was almost naked and all my privates were exposed. I have bruises on my buttocks, hands and other parts of my body,” Ram told Stabroek News last evening. The two other farmers allegedly attacked by the police, Ram said, have marks of violence on their bodies as a result.
In a statement on the altercation, the police force yesterday said that permission was given to the Essequibo Paddy Farmers’ Association to hold the protest march and a meeting after at the Anna Regina High Bridge. It noted that the protest march, which had about 200 participants, was peaceful and by the conclusion of the meeting around 12.30pm, most of the persons left.
However, the force says some persons remained and began drinking and later in the afternoon, around 5.15, those who were drinking and others that included Ram, boarded their vehicles, including tractors and trailers, and proceeded to drive at a very slow rate along the middle of the main roadway in the vicinity of the villages of Reliance and Land of Plenty, Essequibo Coast. It was stated that this action resulted in a backup of traffic as other motor vehicles could not pass, and the protestors continued their action despite efforts by police ranks to get them to drive on the left hand side of the road.
On reaching a short distance before the Land of Plenty Bridge, at about 6pm, police said that the protestors continued breaching the laws by proceeding to block the entire roadway with the use of their vehicles and to set fire to tyres and other debris that were thrown on the roadway. A utility pole was also used to block the roadway.
“By this time the crowd had increased to over 400 persons and efforts by the police to get them to remove the vehicles from across the roadway proved futile. Missiles comprising bricks, bottles and other articles were thrown at police ranks in their attempt to remove the burning obstacles on the roadway, causing them to cease their efforts,” the force said, while adding that fire fighters coming from Anna Regina could not reach the scene due to the blockages on the road.
According to force, police ranks continued to appeal to the residents but to no avail. “The police then arrested Naith Ram, who was leading the protest, at which stage a number of other persons surged forward and accosted the ranks and took him away from the police. During this incident his clothing was torn and several police ranks were thrown into a nearby trench,” the force said.
“Naith Ram then stood among the protestors and stripped himself, and several persons took his photograph. He then left the area and later returned dressed in a change of clothing,” the force further said, while emphasizing that Ram was not stripped by police ranks and that he took off his own clothing after he had been taken away from the custody of the police by other protestors.
A photograph of a Ram appeared on the front page of one of the daily newspapers; his shirt was opened while his pants and underwear were pulled at his ankles, leaving his genitals exposed.
Later, at about 10.45pm, the force said the ranks again appealed to the protestors to disperse but they refused to do so unless President Donald Ramotar went to address their concerns.
As a result, the force said tear smoke was then used to clear the unruly crowd and 19 men, including Ram, were arrested. Additionally, two tractors, four trailers, two cars and two motorcycles, which were among the vehicles used to block the roadway, were seized by the police.
By 12.10am yesterday, the blockage on the roadway was cleared and traffic commenced flowing freely.
Police also said that in addition to its own ranks, a uniformed member of the Guyana Defence Force, who was caught up in the congestion caused by the blockage of the road, was also assaulted by protestors and had to be treated at the Suddie Hospital
At press time last evening, there were no reports of disturbances in the area.
Meanwhile, the AFC and the Home Ministry yesterday traded barbs over the protest and its outcome.
The AFC, in a statement, strongly condemned what it called “the assault and inhumane treatment” of Ram, who is a Region 2 RDC councilor for the party, by members of the Guyana Police Force during the protest.
The party accused the police force of continuing to bring “shame upon our nation by the manner in which it mistreats and abuses our citizens” and added that its resort to publicly undressing a senior member of our party is yet another example of a crude and uncivilised approach to policing.”
“The use of the police force as a tool of political oppression will not be tolerated by the Alliance for Change and this incident must be fully investigated,” the release said, while saying it had received reports that police were instructed by a regional official to “crush” the demonstration.
The AFC added that it supports the protest action by the rice farmers, saying their right to be paid in a timely manner for their produce cannot be ignored year after year. As a result, it condemned the use of “excessive force against peaceful protesters” and the “deployment of soldiers armed to the teeth.”
“This is a clear attempt to prevent farmers from pursuing their democratic and constitutional human rights to association and protest,” the party said, adding that it considers the release of teargas into the crowd and surrounding community as reckless and unnecessary, while cautioning that brute force must never be the first mechanism to ensure law and order. “This outrage against Essequibians is unforgivable and is a clear indication of where this government stands when it comes to the well-being of that community,” the party added.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Home Affairs later criticised the AFC, accusing the party of politically manipulating the plight and grievance of rice farmers on the Essequibo Coast and encouraging a few among the farmers to block the public road on the coast.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs has advised and warned time and again that peaceful protest cannot mean blocking of public roads thus preventing the right of others to proceed without let or hindrance,” the ministry said in a statement, while adding that public safety and security must be for all Guyanese and any attempt by a few to go against this will not be tolerated.
The release said too that the Ministry has noted that over the past weeks representatives of the AFC have been frequenting the Essequibo Coast, encouraging “their political activists imbedded in the rice farming community to engage in unlawful acts to disrupt the peace and good order on the Essequibo Coast,”
“The Ministry of Home Affairs has reasons to believe that the protest was politically motivated and orchestrated by the AFC,” it said.
The Ministry reminded all that the blocking of public roads and bridges is unlawful and persons found engaging in such acts will be prosecuted according to the law.
It was stressed that the ministry supports peaceful protest by Guyanese citizens and their respective organisations but it will not condone the degeneration of peaceful protest into unlawful behaviour that affects the lives and wellbeing of others.