US Charge d’Affaires Karen Williams told Washington that links between Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy and drug kingpin Roger Khan were strong and that the latter had once proposed Ramsammy as a mediator between him and the US government.
Ramsammy has strongly denied accusations of ties to Khan or having been instrumental in the importation of spying equipment that Khan used to go after criminals.
Williams in a cable dated July 31, 2009 also derided the Guyana Government’s defence that it “could not have authorized the purchase because the (spying) equipment fell under strict U.S. export controls”. It also addressed the suspicious fire that gutted the Ministry of Health building on Brickdam and said that in the wake of the allegations surrounding the fire and Khan’s ties to Ramsammy, the US Embassy would review its relationship with the Ministry of Health. In her comment at the end of the cable, Williams also advised that donor countries should take note of the Guyana Government’s “high tolerance for official corruption”.
In a cable entitled `Blaze at Ministry of Health is out, but new allegations keep fires burning’ Williams said that links between Khan, who she said was suspected in masterminding more than 200 murders in Guyana, and Ramsammy are strong.
“A close associate of Khan worked with Ramsammy in the Ministry of Health, and the former death squad leader himself is widely rumored to have had regular Saturday meetings with the Minister. While being pursued by U.S. law enforcement in 2006, Khan put Ramsammy’s name forward as a potential mediator between him and the USG. Ramsammy, who is a U.S. citizen, emphatically denies that he provided a letter giving Khan the GoG’s permission to purchase the equipment, and postulated to Embassy officials that his signature was forged on Ministry of Health letterhead.”
Williams said that Ramsammy’s and other high-level GoG officials’ connections to Khan have been widely known for years, and the “government is believed to have sanctioned Khan’s Phantom, death squad and drug trafficking because it was unable to restore order following a 2002 prison break. The GoG has resisted calls to investigate any allegations related to Khan–though it did ask the Embassy for any information the USG had in the case. Most recently, the Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran disallowed a motion enabling the body to investigate the link between Ramsammy and Khan. In protest the opposition leader hurled a set of law books off his desk and stormed out of Parliament followed by the rest of the opposition. The majority People’s Progressive Party (PPP) responded by using the walkout as an opportunity to pass its version of a local government reform bill without opposition.”
In encounters with the media, Ramsammy has mounted an impassioned defence of himself. On July 29 2009 – two days before Williams’ cable was dispatched to Washington – Ramsammy distanced himself from the allegations raised in a US court about his connections to Khan calling the claims “absurd” and charging that the witness was trying to frame him.
In a statement the minister had said: “These stories emanating from the USA court are absurd, malicious and mischievous and are being sensationalized at my expense. I am not on trial. I can only say that the so-called witness [Selwyn Vaughn] is trying to frame me and to make me a target for sinister reasons. His allegations are harmful, not only to my character as an honest, law-abiding citizen and a very hard worker, but also place me at great risk.”
Before releasing that statement he had brushed off questions from the media and stated that he was upset at the stories in the local press.
“Of course I am concerned. I am concerned when people say nonsense… Maybe you guys need to follow the real story, goddamn it! Y’all go and talk about the people who burn down the Ministry of Health. You talking about me!” Ramsammy had blurted out when questioned.
The statement from Ramsammy came after President Bharrat Jagdeo had disclosed at a press conference that he had asked Ramsammy to issue a statement because the issue needed addressing.
“I spoke with Minister Ramsammy and I asked him ‘were you connected on all of these issues that have been raised? Were you part of this, any part of this? He said to me he was not,’” Jagdeo had told reporters.
Speaking prior to the release of his statement, Ramsammy had told reporters that his portfolio had always been Minister of Health “and that’s all”. He said security was not his mandate and that he never played a role in any security related issue.
The visibly agitated minister declared that the US authorities have had access to him forever and that they have access to him now, and that he has no need for an attorney.
“I don’t need legal assistance. The people out there will judge for themselves… I am clearing my goddamned name. I don’t need a lawyer to defend my name,” Ramsammy declared.
Williams also addressed the question of spy equipment which many believed that the government had facilitated acquisition of so that Khan could pursue criminals. The Guyana Government has denied this.
Williams adverted to the testimony in the trial of Robert Simels, Khan’s former lawyer who had been charged with witness tampering. She noted that revelations in the US court that Khan purchased high-tech spy equipment from a Florida firm using a letter purportedly signed by Minister Ramsammy “shook the Guyanese political scene July 30 and 31”. She pointed out that the director of Smith Myers, the British manufacturer of the cellular intercept equipment had made the accusation.
“The Smith Myers director stated that while the equipment does not require a U.S. export license as maintained by the GoG, it could only be sold to governments for law enforcement purposes, not individuals. A separate witness also made public Khan’s role in the plot to kidnap the wife of the former DCM at Embassy Georgetown, which led to his curtailment in September 2007”, Williams reported.
Williams’ reference to the requirements for export of the equipment is significant as President Jagdeo had argued that the US had to have known about the export of the equipment and given its approval. Williams debunked this notion in other parts of the cable.
She contended that the testimony about the spy equipment had come as an embarrassment to the government.
“The testimony comes as an embarrassment to the GoG, which has maintained it never authorized the purchase of such an apparatus. Guyana Police Force (GPF) in fact seized the equipment in a December 2002 run-in with Khan and several cohorts. As recently as June 2008 President Jagdeo and the Chief of Police maintained the equipment remained safely in GPF custody despite the fact that U.S. authorities found it in Simel’s possession. Since then the GoG has continued to erroneously argue it could not have authorized the purchase because the equipment fell under strict U.S. export controls.”
The government for years had been pressed about the whereabouts of the equipment and had said that it was in the possession of the police. Sources however say that the equipment was returned to Khan and this was how Simels eventually took possession of it during one of his visits to the country to gather testimony for Khan’s defence.
The police had staged a display of what it said was the equipment but no inspection of it was allowed and so the matter was not conclusively settled.
Ministry of Health
Williams also referred to the Ministry of Health fire on July 17, 2009.
“The current revelation about the Minister of Health follows the channa-bombing,–a Guyanese version of the Molotov cocktail using chick-peas and gasoline–of the Ministry of Health’s main building in the early hours of July 17. The GoG claims it was a politically motivated attack and arrested a number of suspects, some of whom have emerged from police custody with signs of severe mistreatment. However, rumors in Georgetown link the attack to the Khan case, or an accounting investigation at the Ministry.”
In her comment on relations with the ministry, Williams said “The Ministry of Health is the largest partner of the Embassy in Guyana and has been key to the PEPFAR program’s success in country to date. Nevertheless, Post is reviewing its relationship with the Ministry in light of the recent allegations and the catastrophic fire.”
Last May, Guyana was not among 12 Caribbean countries which benefited from US$100M aimed at HIV/AIDS. The signing of this PEPFAR agreement was done by Williams and Deputy Secretary-General Lolita Applewhaite. Guyana and Haiti, the only two Caribbean countries to benefit from Phase 1 of PEPFAR were to continue receiving help via direct bilateral arrangements along with the Dominican Republic.
Earlier this year, the US Embassy announced that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) planned to close its Mission in Guyana in Fiscal Year 2012 as part of its worldwide strategy to be more efficient in the management of its aid resources.
Perhaps the most scathing commentary in the cable was Williams’ view that the events surrounding Khan showed the depth of corruption in the government.
Williams said: “The more troubling aspect of the continuing fallout of the Khan trials is that it demonstrates the depth of corruption in the current government and its unwillingness or inability to address it. The GoG has made no indication it plans to remove Ramsammy and has resisted every attempt to investigate the depth of Khan’s influence in Guyana. It will likely continue to distance itself from the Khan controversy and focus attention on finding the perpetrators of (or scapegoats for) the Ministry of Health arson attack.”
She advised Washington that as President Jagdeo continues to push for full international funding of his Low Carbon Development Strategy and a full USAID-funded Millennium Challenge Account “donor countries should consider the government’s high tolerance for official corruption and Jagdeo’s repeated demonstration that he will not take a stand against it.”
She said that while opposition parties were likely to use the Khan incidents as fodder in this year’s elections, Guyanese have generally greeted the disclosures with a “frustrated shrug”.
She contended: “Jagdeo and the PPP won re-election in 2006 with the Khan issue in the public domain, and the 2011 election will largely hinge on the opposition’s ability to establish credibility with the public. Sentiment is running high against the government, but the lack of an alternative (the leading opposition party is widely seen as just a different version of the same corrupt governance) leave people no place to turn.”