Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee yesterday said the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) did not have the capacity to overthrow the then governing People’s National Congress (PNC) government and therefore did not need to be under surveillance.
Rohee made the pronouncement while under cross-examination by PNCR lawyer Basil Williams at the continuing Walter Rodney commission of inquiry.
Williams had been trying to ascertain whether the state at the time—between the late 70s and early 80s—was lawful or justified in keeping the opposition forces of the PPP and the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) under surveillance. Rohee had been one of several persons who claimed the PNC had been conducting widespread surveillance.
“If a person publicly declares that they would overthrow the government of the day, would that person come under surveillance?” Williams questioned.
In response, Rohee said it depended on the person and just how serious the threat was being considered by the Special Branch. He further said the matter was one to be dealt with by the Special Branch. “That’s the professional decision of the Special Branch,” he added.
Williams questioned Rohee at length on the standing orders of the Special Branch then and now. Williams also presented the testimony of Crime Chief Leslie James, who had indicated the current standing orders of the Special Branch. James had testified that the current orders had been present during the PNC government.
In response, Rohee said he could not say whether the current standing orders were present at the time of Rodney’s death. He further admitted that he was unaware of the current standing orders of the Special Branch even though he was not only the Home Affairs Minister but also chairman of the National Intelligence Committee.
According to Rohee, he was aware of the workings of the Special Branch to an extent but not necessarily the rules which guided its operatives. He said he would be briefed on issues he requested and he had assumed the unit would have stuck to its standing orders.
Williams asked whet-her the Special Branch operated on its own without reference to any political figure. In response, Rohee said he would not say they were “doing their own thing” but they would not be operating under his directives as Minister of Home Affairs. Instead, he said, they would be guided by their standing orders. He emphasised that his way of doing things would not be the same as all Home Affairs ministers.
Rohee continued, “If such a statement [a threat] is to come to my attention from the Special Branch in a report that they would have submitted… [then] the Special Branch would have to see whether this person poses a threat to the state security. If the Special Branch finds that person is not a threat to state security then that’s the end of it.”
“So, should the state protect itself when someone, or a grouping or party declares that their intention is to overthrow the government?” Williams asked. After a pause, Rohee said, “That’s a trick question.”
Rohee further said he was aware of current politicians who publicly declared that they would overthrow the current PPP government. “Yet I don’t know about surveillance now on Granger [opposition leader David Granger].” Rohee added.
Legality of surveillance
Continuing his line of questioning on the matter of surveillance, Williams questioned whether surveillance by the Special Branch was unlawful. Rohee responded that he could not say whether the practice was lawful or not. Williams elaborated and asked whether the security force had the legal remit to conduct surveillance at the time.
Rohee said when the PPP came into power in 1992, the Special Branch upgraded its focus to include crime intelligence and, to date, that is the branch’s focus.
Rohee maintained that he could not determine the legality of surveillance and reiterated that he did not know the current standing orders of the Special Branch.
“You really expect us to believe that?” Williams asked. Rohee responded in the affirmative.
In Rohee’s defence, Chairman of the Inquiry Sir Richard Cheltenham said anyone could be an excellent minister without knowing all of the ramifications of each sector under his control.
“Not this minister,” Williams interjected.
Rohee was also questioned on his knowledge surrounding the death of Rodney when, at the time of the man’s killing, the long-standing PPP member had been out of Guyana.
According to Rohee, he had left Guyana in November 1979 and headed to Prague, Czechoslovakia and returned here in 1983.
Noting this point, Williams questioned whether where Rohee gained all of his information from. “You would agree, therefore, that at all of the material times you were outside of Guyana?” Williams asked.
Rohee replied, “At the time of Dr. Rodney’s death, I was outside of Guyana.” Williams immediately continued and said, “Therefore you have no direct knowledge of how he met his death.”
However, Rohee denied this claim, saying he would not say so. In turn, Williams insisted Rohee was not an eyewitness to Rodney’s death and Rohee acquiesced.
“Therefore, you learnt about his death when you returned in 1983,” Williams said. Rohee rejected this and said he learnt of Rodney’s death while he was abroad. He elaborated and said he received a telephone call the day after Rodney’s death because Prague was several hours ahead of Guyana.
Williams also questioned the work Rohee had been conducting in Prague as a member of the PPP. Rohee had previously testified that he had been practising as journalist. However, Williams suggested to him yesterday that he was “involved in the business of propaganda.”
“Do you believe that, on completion of your three-year stint there, that you would have been made a master of propaganda?” Williams asked.
Rohee, in turn, laughed and replied that he did not know what a “master of propaganda” was. “I was a better writer,” he insisted.
Rohee further said he had no reason to believe that the person who informed him of Rodney’s death was being dishonest or spreading propaganda.
“So, the person was in the vehicle at the time?” Williams asked, referring to the vehicle in which Rodney was seated at the time of the bomb blast that killed him. Rohee replied in the negative but said the person had been in Guyana at the time.
According to Williams, “I’m putting it to you that you were in no position to make that statement being thousands of miles on another continent that the government of Guyana was responsible for the death of Dr. Rodney,” Williams asserted.
Rohee maintained that he could have and the commissioners also interjected to say that though Rohee did not have direct evidence, his evidence could be considered circumstantial.
In response, Williams said that circumstantial evidence was not enough.
Several times during Rohee’s 45-minute-long cross-examination, the PPP executive and the PNC lawyer butted heads, with each man accusing the other of using the commission as a political platform.
Williams had levelled the accusation against Rohee on both Monday and yesterday and Rohee also made the charge when Williams’ cross-examination turned to more current events.
At one point, Williams questioned whether the security forces had ever shot into crowds of people while Rohee had been Home Affairs Minister. After several back and forth questions and responses, Rohee told the commission that Williams had been referring to the Linden shootings in 2012 and he was hoping to use the incident as a political platform.
“What Mr. Williams is trying to do now is establish a case to link what happened in Linden when the police shot into the crowd with what happened then; that’s what he is trying to do,” Rohee asserted. He then turned to Williams and said, “I know your style; I’ve known you for years.”
In response, Williams said the Linden case was not the first in which the police shot at crowds during the PPP administration.
Sir Richard then interjected and indicated that the commission was not interested in what was currently happening because its remit was to focus on the years prior to Rodney’s death and the years just after.
Williams, in turn, defended his line of questioning and said the commission, on numerous occasions, had allowed Rohee to bring up the present and the knowledge he gained as a current minister. “I thought since you allowed him to do that you would allow me to cross-examine him on that,” Williams said.
Williams also accused the commission of being run by Rohee when he heard that the minister would be returning on Monday to undergo further cross-examination.
Williams was told that the time would be the most convenient for Rohee and in response he said, had he been in the position of chairman of the commission, Rohee would have had to turn up when instructed.
“Fortunately you’re not in this position,” Sir Richard responded.
The commission will continue today but will not be opened to the general public.
The Commission of Inquiry into the death of Rodney, the WPA co-founder, was set up to investigate the June 13, 1980 bomb blast that killed him.