Under cross-examination yesterday, Working People’s Alliance (WPA) member Tacuma Ogunseye charged that Donald Rodney was not given a fair trial after the killing of his brother Walter Rodney because the then PNC government wanted to justify its “version” of the events for propaganda.
Donald Rodney, who was the only witness to the June 13, 1980 killing of Dr. Walter Rodney, was convicted for the possession of explosives without lawful authority shortly after Walter Rodney was killed. He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.
Ogunseye, testifying before members of the Commission of Inquiry into Walter Rodney’s death, said WPA members suffered at the hands of “trumped up charges” by then PNC government.
Under cross-examination by Donald Rodney’s lawyer, Keith Scotland, Ogunseye stated that the judicial system was corrupt and bent toward the interest of the government, with judicial officers ruling in favour of the government because they “didn’t have the backbone to stand up” against the regime.
Scotland probed him to describe the atmosphere of the courtroom during Donald’s trial at the time and he said it was charged with tension and PNC paramountcy in the room. He recalled that the courtroom was filled with PNC members, while other civilians were obstructed from entering. He said the police determined who entered the room.
Asking Ogunseye to be “neutral” in his description, Scotland questioned him about whether the atmosphere in the courtroom was fair. Ogunseye replied that the Donald was not given a fair trial and that the Forbes Burnham administration wanted the conviction to justify “their version” of the events leading up Walter’s death for propaganda purposes.
Ogunseye said the pressure of party paramountcy was brought down on the head of Donald in the trial. He added that only 25% of the court system was impartial in judgment; the other 75% was what he described as “unfairness.” “The courtroom was always filled with tension…a decisive state presence,” he said.
He maintained that the system was not fair to Donald because there was no evidence to convict him. Donald was charged on June 25, 1980 for the offence by a magistrate in the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court. An appeal was filed on the grounds that the decision was unreasonable and that the evidence could not be supported, the decision was erroneous and the sentence was unduly served. The appeal was dismissed. However, Donald never served the sentence.
Ogunseye further stated that the quality of evidence brought against himself was very “flimsy,” while noting that he had only received one fair trial compared to the number of times he was charged.
He said Burnham did not want too many political prisoners in the prison and he indicated that Burnham was very particular about his repression of the WPA.
‘A real political threat’
Under cross-examination by Brian Clarke, who represents the interest of the Guyana Trades Union Congress, Ogunseye said that his refusal to pay a fine for one of his charges was an “act of civil disobedience against an oppressive regime.” He said: “Burnham killed Rodney because he believed that Rodney and the WPA posed a real political threat to his regime and power.”
Audio – Part 1
He added that Burnham had cracked under the pressure of the civil rebellion and “lost his nerves” because he could not stand up and fight against it.
He suggested that Burnham then tried to entrap the WPA to be involved in political violence but it refused because it was inconsistent with its political constraints. “Burnham thought it safer for me [him] to kill Walter than wait to see what’s down the road,” he said.
Attorney Basil Williams, however, in response noted that Ogunseye was not allowed to give an opinion on what was in Burnham’s mind. Commission Chairman Sir Richard Cheltenham responded that Ogunseye was only giving a judgment and the commissioners will deduce the facts from the statement.
During his cross-examination, Williams put it to Ogunseye that the WPA used the Suriname-Guyana border as a route to bring in arms. However, Ogunseye ardently denied this, causing Williams to snap. Williams retorted that he did not believe that the WPA did not commit any acts of violence because Joseph Hamilton had testified that the House of Israel was fearful that the WPA would overrun the Brickdam Police Station. Williams stated that the House of Israel believed that when they broke up WPA meetings, the party would react violently. “They thought that the WPA had the capacity to react violently,” he stated.
But Ogunseye quickly quipped that “they are fantasising” and added that the WPA never attacked the House of Israel or acted violently. “You need to be honest, counsel,” he said, adding that he accepted that it was a “preconception” of Hamilton that the party would retaliate.
The tension boiled over when Williams responded by asking if the illegal collection of arms was not sign of people about to act violently. He grilled Ogunseye about if he was sharing guns to WPA members but Ogunseye shook his head in denial. “Are you a gun dealer?” Williams asked, drawing jeers and angry remarks from WPA representatives in the audience.
Audio: Part 2
Ogunseye, however, shot back, “Counsel can I tell you something?”
Sir Richard rebuked him and instructed him to tell Williams whatever he had to say after the session was over.
Williams continued cross-examination by asking if Ogunseye knew the distribution of weapons was illegal. Ogunseye said yes. But he was unable to say where the weapons were, nearly twenty years later.
Williams further questioned him on if the WPA made a conscious decision for a civil rebellion but he denied it, saying that the phenomenon just manifested.
Williams is expected to continue his cross-examination at the next session of hearings, which starts on July 28. The session is expected to last for two weeks.
Ogunseye, who gave evidence last week, had declared that the WPA had planned to overthrow the then PNC government after a civil rebellion. Ogunseye contended that the WPA’s political agenda shifted after its members were blamed for the burning down of the National Development Ministry building. He said the party’s initial purpose was to give itself political legitimacy to contest against other political forces. However, this changed.
He stated that they then set out to win over the military force and prepared for regime change by strengthening the WPA’s covert and overt activities. He added that they also sought to form alliances that would endorse the regime change. He said they knew that a civil rebellion could not bring down a government, so they used it as a tactic instead.
“We knew that the civil rebellion would not bring down the government… but it was (a) tactic to get the people to endorse a change of government,” he said. “The civil rebellion announced the coming of regime change,” he said.
Rodney, who was the co-leader of the WPA, was killed near John and Bent streets on June 13, 1980, after a walkie-talkie given to him exploded.
The PNC, the ruling party at that time, has long been accused of his assassination and has continued to reject any association with the killing. Rodney had actively opposed the PNC and had held mass public meetings which ended in invasions by security units and other groups.