In the bad old days of absolute monarchy, several European countries had a crime on their statute books called lèse majesté. It derived from a Latin phrase meaning ‘injured majesty,’ and referred to an assault on the dignity of a monarch. Not so many centuries ago, of course, the dignity of the crowned heads of Europe and their innumerable relatives was easily offended, and their subjects had to proceed with caution when moved to make remarks – or gestures – in public, if not in private. There is still the odd imperious king around as well as tyrannical rulers who lay no claim to royal lineage, but who do lay claim to ultra-sensitive egos which they want insulated from criticism. Even in those portions of the globe where an atmosphere of greater egalitarianism prevails, the law survives in a few places, albeit not under the name lèse majesté and in a highly attenuated form. In some republics, it has been transferred from a kingly frame of reference to cover presidents or other high representatives of state.
England did not have the specific offence, although that did not mean the disrespectful and impertinent were safe to express themselves, since before the seventeenth century they presumably ran the risk of a charge of treason, and after it, depending on the period, no doubt some other unsavoury charge. The ever informative Wikipedia says Scotland did have an offence of leasing-making or lease-making, referring to making remarks critical of the monarch, but that no one has been prosecuted for it since 1715.
As for Guyana, it is a common law jurisdiction, and Scottish law has never applied here, so there is no offence of lèse majesté, whether or not under that name, lurking on the books. Be that as it may, the legal authorities seem to have been scrambling last week to find the correct section under which to charge one young man who had allegedly gesticulated inappropriately at a presidential convoy. If nothing else it demonstrated that if there is no actual law extant, the concept of lèse majesté, at least, might be very much alive in the Co-operative Republic.
The saga began on August 8, when as mentioned above, 18-year-old Kevin Simon allegedly showed his middle finger to the presidential convoy which was passing. He appeared in court the following day charged with a provocation of a breach of the peace under Clause 141 (b) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, and was remanded to prison. The section, of course, as already indicated, is not specific to presidents, and the offence is a bailable one – after all, it is a none-too-serious charge – so one can only assume that the fact that the presidential convoy was involved, upgraded it in the court’s mind to something more serious. As such, therefore, Mr Simon was remanded and ordered to return to court a week later on August 16. When he appeared again on that date, he was further remanded until August 24.
At this point the young man’s lawyer and father made a bail application on his behalf to the High Court which was granted in the sum of $5,000. Had that not happened he would have spent another period in jail. He duly appeared in court again on August 24, when his matter was adjourned until August 30, and after coming again before the magistrate on that date, he was ordered to return on September 20. The postponement, we reported on Wednesday, was because the original charge against Mr Simon had been withdrawn and another had to be instituted. We understood from a member of his legal team, that under the initial charge he would have had to have uttered words, and that the charge should have been filed under Clause 141 (a) which deals with gesticulations, etc. It would have been no consolation to Mr Simon, however, that he spent time in jail charged with the wrong offence.
The case was not widely reported at first, but now that it has become public knowledge, it has generated a torrent of criticism, and there have been protests outside State House about the teenager’s imprisonment. On Wednesday the protestors stuck out their middle fingers while holding their placards, none of whom, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, has been charged therefor.
At a press conference on Friday, President Jagdeo himself commented on the issue, saying that he did not think that the young man, whom he described as “probably misguided,” should be prosecuted. He seems to have taken exception, however, to the protestors, whom in unpresidential language he described as a “fringe group” and “loonies looking for a cause.” And this, it might be noted, when he happens to be in agreement with them at some level, although admittedly he had nothing to say about Mr Simon’s wrongful imprisonment. One can only hope that this is not an indication that Mr Jagdeo considers only his views are of any consequence, and everyone else outside his charmed circle who has something to say can be written off as a “loony.” If that were indeed so, he would have more in common with a mediaeval monarch than anyone had ever previously suspected.
In any case even if Mr Simon as is alleged did insult the dignity of the presidency, Mr Jagdeo himself has shown no unqualified interest in preserving it. The above example in relation to the protestors is one of many suggesting that the President harbours little enthusiasm for observing the decorum associated with his office, and it cannot be a source of surprise, therefore, that some members of society – not excluding government ministers – have taken their cue from him.
It is the case, of course, that Mr Jagdeo himself appears to have known nothing about the incident at the time when it occurred, and that it was the presidential guards in the convoy who took action. It might be remarked that no one in more recent times has brought the Office of the President into greater disrepute than certain members of the Presidential Guard, who were caught moonlighting for a businessman and destroying property at his behest in a quarrel with his business partner. While there has been internal disciplinary action, no one has yet been charged in that matter. It is rather ironic, therefore, that of all people it was presidential guards who took such umbrage to what is essentially a minor issue, and could have been dealt with by a stern talking to the young alleged offender.
Once the wheels of prosecution began turning, the rest of this sorry drama began to play out. As said earlier, what has really brought the case into the public eye, is the fact that the court, in what at a minimum was an excess of zeal, appeared to import an element of lèse majesté into the offence, and remanded Mr Simon to prison – a clear injustice in the eyes of the public One can only wonder what danger it was thought he represented to the society if he were freed on bail; an epidemic of showing the middle finger in the neighbourhood of the Head of State, perhaps? If so, that was a mistake; this happened anyway through the agency of the protestors after he was remanded. Apart from the fact that as already noted he was entitled to bail given his alleged offence, this decision was handed down in an environment where persons on sometimes quite serious charges have been granted bail.
We do not live in the Middle Ages, where monarchs believed they ruled by divine right, and assaults on their dignity came quite high on the list of serious criminal offences. What concerns the public is that major criminals who have committed armed robbery and murder have not been apprehended, but an insignificant citizen who allegedly made an obscene gesture in the direction of the presidential convoy is twice remanded to prison pending the hearing of his case. In other words, it seems to reverse the importance of felonies and misdemeanours. Given what has happened it would appear to be an appropriate point for the relevant legal authorities to review the case, and in their own good judgement decide not to proceed any further with the matter.