Health Ministry arsonists jailed for five years

Magistrate finds crime was ‘well organised’

Colin Jones and Clayton Westford, the two men found guilty of torching the Ministry of Health’s building in 2009, were yesterday each sentenced to 60 months imprisonment for the crime.

The decision was handed down by Magistrate Judy Latchman at the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court, where former Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy detailed the losses as a result of the arson attack on the 100-year-old building.

Jones and Westford were found guilty last week, with Magistrate Latchman saying that the court had found that both defendants committed the offence beyond reasonable doubt and at all material times their intention was to so do.

Colin Jones
Colin Jones

The sentencing was scheduled for yesterday and the courtroom was filled to capacity with family and friends of the two men, who decried the length of time they would be incarcerated for after the sentences were handed down. As the convicts were being escorted to the holding facility at the court before transport to the Camp Street Prison, their relatives and friends voiced dissatisfaction with the court’s ruling from the streets outside the courthouse. They contended that the two men were innocent.

The charge against Jones and Westford was that they unlawfully and maliciously set fire to the Ministry of Health’s building. The huge fire, sparked by ‘channa bombs,’ destroyed the ministry’s main building and an annex at Brickdam, in the wee hours of July 17 2009, devouring decades of records, vehicles and a string of key divisions in a major blow to the health sector.

Magistrate Latchman, in announcing the sentences, said the court found that the crime was “well-organised.”

She noted that while the national pledge speaks to citizens’ dedicating their energies “towards the happiness and prosperity of Guyana,” this was disregarded when Jones and Westford committed the crime.

She added that the building was more than 100 years old and was important to the people not only because of the important records it housed, but also because it formed part of their heritage. She further said that what the two men had done was disloyal and that they stole the nation’s happiness on the day the building was burnt.

In mitigation, the magistrate said that she had taken into account the age of the men—Jones, 24, and Westford, 23—and the fact that the former had one previous conviction and the latter had none, based on the information gathered by Prosecutor Vishnu Hunt.

Attorney Michael Somersall, who represented Westford, indicated to the court that he will be appealing the decision against his client.
Meanwhile, Ramsammy was present at yesterday’s hearing in light of the court’s request for his presence or any other representative of the Health Ministry in a capacity to inform the court of the value of all losses.

Clayton Westford
Clayton Westford

Ramsammy, who was Health Minister at the time of the fire, said that the building had been in existence for more than 100 years and was valued between $1.2 and $1.5 billion. It housed various records relating to human resource personnel, persons working at the central ministry, hospitals and health centres across the country.

Additionally, he said that there were records relating to professional examinations. He noted that the building housed several councils, including the Nursing, Medical and Pharmacy councils. These councils, he said, are licensing bodies which maintained records of health professionals, such as doctors, nurses and pharmacists, including complaints and disciplinary action against them. Among the records he listed were also financial, administrative, procurement and payment data.

Ramsammy said that important epidemiological and surveillance records for illness or disease, and records of outbreaks and illnesses to track such, were also destroyed.

He said that the epidemiological records and surveillance data helped the ministry to monitor the leptospirosis outbreak which threatened more than 700 persons during the 2005 floods in Georgetown. Deaths, he said, were prevented because of the existence of such surveillance records. He noted that data on yellow fever was also destroyed.

When asked if he wanted to say anything after Ramsammy’s address to the court, Jones, who represented himself, questioned the merit of Ramsammy’s account, stating that he had given the court the impression that all the records were destroyed although not every building in the compound was wrecked.

Ramsammy, however, noted that the burnt building housed all the records, paper and computerised files which were destroyed.

Neither Jones, a former labourer nor Westford, whom his lawyer said formerly worked with the Ministry of Finance, had character witnesses to call on their behalf when given the chance.

But in his closing remarks, the unrepresented Jones, said that since he “loves his country so much” he wanted to add that the prosecution had failed to establish the part which he played in the commission of the crime. He contended that he was innocent and that the prosecution’s entire case against him was based on an oral statement which the police claimed they took from him. He refuted the claim, while pointing out that a police witnesses in the matter had testified that he [Jones] had been implicated in the matter by someone else.

Begging the court to add weight to his submissions, Jones said also that the police had no surveillance of him committing the act nor were there witnesses to place him at the scene. “I don’t know if you can work a miracle and overturn this verdict, please, My Worship, but this so-called oral statement which the prosecution has against me is not enough,” Jones asserted.

After the sentences were read, Westford’s father was heard extending words of comfort to his son, encouraging him to be strong, while his mother reassured that the family is there for him. Meanwhile, the teary-eyed mother and sister of Jones expressed similar sentiments to him. “Brudds, ah gon visit yuh next Tuesday right,” Jones’ sister encouraged as she exited the courtroom.

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