Legislative acts as a form of social control – British Emergency Detention Bill and the Preventive Detention Act, 1966-1991

Part Two

By Shammane Joseph

This article was supposed to be a two part series however due to added information it is now a four-part series. This second instalment will focus on the stakeholders and individuals who were directly influenced by the Preventive Detention Act, 1966.

In November 1966 former President Forbes Burnham stated that the National Security bill was more liberal than similar legislation introduced in other Commonwealth Nations and India, Ghana, Pakistan were all post-war nations that had this type of bill.

He defended this bill by saying that it is more liberal because of automatic review and the ability to re-detain over a certain period. He stated that in the India situation automatic review was done in three months and it gave the executive in certain cases powers for the tribunal to detain indefinitely whereas there was no case in which the Guyana Executive could detain anyone indefinitely. With the preventive detention bill it was stated that the laws protected the citizens more than the emergency bill. In that no one could have been detained for a period of more than three months unless the tribunal said there was reason to warrant this motive. Further, if the tribunal found that there was not sufficient evidence for detaining someone this person could not be re-detained on the same evidence with in a period of six months after his/her release. The tribunal decisions were binding and it was appointed by the Chancellor. It was made up of a Chairman and two other members who were judges of the Supreme Court or who were qualified to be judges of the Supreme Court. This was to make speedy trials by the tribunal. Preventive detention did not come into force, unless an order was made by the Governor-General acting on advice by the Cabinet, as a result making the preventive detention much more liberal. Burnham stated that the bill would only have been used unless the situation so demanded.  Significantly, Mr. Burnham had stated in November 1966, that the “provisions of this bill would only remain extant for only eighteen months after enactment, subject of course to the right of the National Assembly to extend that period from time to time – in any case for not more than a year at a time”. However, this bill lasted until 1991, and during its period of influence it became more inflexible. Mr. Burnham continuously stressed the point that the bill was in keeping with the constitution and the decisions reached at the constitutional conference in London 1965. He emphasized that it was much more liberal than legislation dealing with similar or the same subject in any part of the commonwealth. The legislation gave powers to do certain things but at the same time it did not assume that those powers would have been used. However, with the history of detention in Guyana there was no legal aid clinic in existence and as a result many detained under this bill was not represented by counsel because they could not afford one to represent them in front of the tribunal. Therefore, many were at the mercies of these learned individuals.

The British Emergency regulations had seventeen offences such as – control of telegraphic and other communications; (2) prohibition of misleading or disaffectionate acts and propaganda to the prejudice of the defence of  public safety or order;  prohibition of the wearing of uniforms, processions and meetings;  prohibition of the importation or publication of seditious matter and acts prejudicial to public safety or order and the seizure of unlawful publications and presses and suppression of newspapers; provision for preventive detention not subject to binding adjudication by a judicial tribunal. The Guyanese version of preventive detention only had five, such as restriction of movement; detention by order; search of persons suspected of having fire arms or endangering public safety; search of premises for fire arms; control of explosives. This bill was seen as a transition from the powers of emergency to total democratic freedom.

Dr. Fenton Ramsahoye the former Attorney General under the PPP stated that the bill was a declaration of war against the inherent rights of Guyanese and it should have been withdrawn along with the 1939 wartime emergency legislation. He further stated that the Burnham government gave the British the idea that the country was subjected to disturbances and constant threat to public peace. He said that the bill proved that the government was unstable. The country was at peace and stable except for commission of criminal offences which have increased because of the desire of the government to pay less attention to criminality than it paid to political suppression.  He further stated that the only explanation for the bill is to suppress the mounting political opposition to the government and silence voices of protest in the event that elections were denied or rigged to allow executive powers to remain concentrated in the hands of persons whom the electorate were anxious of an opportunity to discard. He agreed that certain stipulations of the bill came from the provisions of India, the exercise of certain powers depended upon the opinion of the minister, and these were used as weapons of suppression. What was frightening to the opposition was the provision which permitted a Minister to enlarge in an arbitrary manner on the definition of the word “ammunition”. This was opined to mean that the “leaders of the government distrusted their own companions and fear even their own guards”. Dr. Fenton Ramsahoye stated that the bill “reminded the public that despite growing economic depression, rising unemployment and general decline in the standard of living of the working class there still existed in the executive autocratic power which will be used to frighten the people of Guyana into the type of subservience which is the object of absolute despotism to foster”.  As a result the  PPP mounted a campaign against the bill.

Peter D’Aguiar the former leader of the United Force stated that the bill was in its transitional stage between the wide powers of emergency and the resumption of normalcy. He admitted that the bill was not an ideal in an ideal democracy, but it was necessary to reach the democratic heights to which they all aspired. He contrasted the violence of the Jagan regime with the absence of violence before and after the present coalition government came into power. Guyana was an infant democracy and the preventive bill was necessary to protect it. He stated “a dose of preventive medicine maybe bitter but it is necessary”. He stated that “how quickly it will outgrow the need for this sort of bitter medicine will depend on the activities of some of the more ardent revolutionaries of our societies”. It was the view of the leader of the U.F. that all the restraints would have been removed when it was reasonable and proper to do so. According to the bill all restraints had to be referred to the Cabinet, so as to ensure no abuse of those powers. His contention was that although the opposition was against the bill they never acknowledged that they would have repealed this bill when they got into power. He stated that the bill was necessary in order to protect citizens. “Between March and August 1964, it was estimated that more than 150 persons died as a result of terrorist campaign”. He further emphasised that “violence reached its peak in June 1964; as a result the Governor had to take over control of security and to use emergency powers to detain people without trial. This remedy was considered effective. Violence ceased and order was restored”. The U.F. position at the time of the bill was that it was that “there was no abuse of powers which existed under the emergency regulations, and if this was to happen then sanctions would have been applied”.

This was considered a dream never realised by the fifteen men detained for over twelve months by the British and coalition governments. The former Junior Vice –President Joseph A. Jardim of the PPP was released from a detention camp along with eight others in June 1966. They were detained for more than twelve months, without being questioned, accused of a crime nor were they ever tried of a crime. They were detained in order to “stop them from acting in a manner prejudicial to public safety and order”. Jardim’s story is similar to all the others who were incarcerated. The police asked to search his home and later he was advised that he would have to overnight at Eve Leary. There were no questions nor accusations made against him. It was while at Eve Leary he was served with the detention order. He wrote to the I.C.J in the hopes of getting justice, however before the response of the I.C.J arrived he was served with a document that showed the procedure for appealing against detention.

Later he was sent to the detention camp located in Sibley Hall, Mazaruni. The detention camps were situated away from the criminals. The conditions at the penal settlement were considered “reasonable good” by Jardim; however “the restrictions on the camp for prisoners could have been equated to Nazis Germany detention camps”. The new detainees were not allowed to speak to the detainees who were there prior to 1964. To make this effective a wall which they called the “Yaw Wall” or the “Burnham Wall” was built to separate them. They overcame this by climbing atop a tank and shouting to each other. They were not allowed to talk to each other even though they were from the same party and they were separated and billeted in separate buildings from the others. This saw too many having circulation problems because of the lack of physical exercise. Meals were provided but the quality of the cooking was bad, which saw Jardim being hospitalised twice from stomach ailments.

Their detention did not daunt their spirits, they even applied to witness the Independence celebration at the Penal settlement and to participate in the flag raising ceremony but this was denied. Their participation was in the form of a special independence meal.

Prior to his detention, he stated he was only conscious of speaking at PPP meetings. After being released he was placed in a dusk till dawn curfew, and his movements were restricted to Greater Georgetown.

The order stated that this was to prevent him from “acting in a manner prejudicial to public safety and order”. This was not only dictated to him but also to the other eight detainees. It was shocking to him that Guyanese were so indifferent to the use of detention in order to deny people of one of their basic human rights. Those detained believed that true democracy was on trial. Prior to his detention, Jardim left Guyana in 1962 for nine months, after the disturbances, vowing never to return, but he was not allowed to do so.  The Trinidadians turned him out of their island after one month; he was given three days to leave St. Vincent and later was asked by Grenada to depart.

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