Red House eviction on hold after court order

-workers from Ministry of the Presidency broke sign, changed padlock

The PPP/C-led candlelight vigil outside Red House last evening prior to a counter-demonstration led by Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence. (Keno George photo)

Red House was the scene of high drama yesterday after the private group running it secured a conservatory order from the court against the government’s revocation of its lease and a candlelight vigil by the PPP/C last evening attracted a counter-protest led by Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence.

A day after President David Granger announced that the lease held by the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre Incorporated (CJRCI) to the heritage building would be revoked, a battery of lawyers representing CJRCI rushed to court and obtained an interim order in chambers before Chief Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards. The conservatory order freezes the government instruction that the High Street premises be vacated by today. The matter is returnable for February 20, 2017.

A short while after the court issued the order,  several men with the insignia of the Ministry of the Presidency (MotP) on their clothing descended on the wooden, colonial-style Red House, broke the signboard for the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre and changed a padlock. Police were called in and the men eventually left the building after they were confronted by the occupants.

When Stabroek News arrived at Red House, the sign was seen broken and thrown in a corner of the compound. A small truck was also seen parked nearby.

Three men, one of whom was in possession of a hammer, were standing across the road and it was learnt that they were the MotP employees who had done the damage.

The matter was reported to the police who showed up and spoke to PPP/C members and the MotP employees.

Key members of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), including Leader of the Opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo; General Secretary, Clement Rohee; Parliamentary Chief Whip, Gail Teixeira; Irfaan Ali; Juan Edghill and former President, Donald Ramotar rushed over to Red House.

The padlock that the MotP employees had placed on the gates was broken and PPP/C members were seen testing out another lock that was said to be more secure.

In a brief address to the media at  the dark red painted building, PPP/C Executive Member, Indra Chandarpal said even though they were aware of the legal challenge to the President’s revocation order, they had started to gather their important documents.

SN observed that the documents were neatly packed away in a room. The centre contains important documents and artifacts belonging to the Jagan family and the PPP/C.

Chandarpal recounted that she left the centre around 2 pm and when she returned several of the MotP men tried to prevent her from entering. She told them that they could not stop her and she pushed her way in but her vehicle was left outside. The staff were busy and unaware of what was transpiring.

The men informed Chandarpal that they had instructions from Minister of State, Joseph Harmon that nobody should enter and nothing should leave the building and that they were taking possession of it.

She also noticed that their shirts bore the ministry’s name and she also recognised some of them.  She said she “started to quarrel with them” and informed them that “the place has everything for the Jagan family at the research centre. It doesn’t belong to the state. The building is a state one yes, but nothing inside belong to the state…”

In the meantime, she “heard a commotion outside” and noticed that they had pulled a huge garbage bin and stood on it and proceeded to break the sign board. They then padlocked the gate.

A release from the Ministry of the Presidency on Thursday had said the President handed down the revocation instructions on Thursday in a letter to Harmon, more than one year after the Coalition Government had engaged the CJRCI on the matter of the lease.

The release said that the engagement included negotiations for Red House to provide a national service by housing information on all of the Presidents of Guyana.  Those negotiations proved fruitless and in an invited comment, Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Basil Williams said that after discussions broke down, he sought to determine the legality of the lease agreement.

Legal proceedings

Attorney Anil Nandlall in a release yesterday said that Chairman of the CJRCI, Hydar Ally swore to the affidavit in the application before Justice Cummings-Edwards.

Nandlall who represented Ally said the legal proceedings were filed to challenge the alleged revocation of the lease.

It also sought certain conservatory orders restraining the Attorney General and every other officer of the state “from evicting or ejecting or in any way, or interfering with the peaceful and quiet occupation and possession of this building by the Cheddi Jagan Research Institute.”

He said they also applied for an order restraining the officers from interfering with or removing any artifacts, materials or any property or archival matter contained and stored in the building.

The Chief Justice informed them that “she preferred to hear Attorney General (AG), Basil Williams as well because we went ex parte as we are entitled to do”.

The court heard detailed arguments from him and attorney/PPP/C MP, Priya Manickchand and they were allowed to serve the proceedings on the AG.

The matter was called again at 3 pm when the AG appeared. According to Nandlall, he “said two significant things; one, that the lease was cancelled a while now and two, that the property has been taken possession of several days now.”

The AG, he said, argued that the court would therefore be acting in vain in dealing with possession because according to him, possession has already been effected and the court would also be acting in vain in treating with the revocation of the lease.

Nandlall informed the judge that that is not the case and that “up to this morning Mr. Hydar Ally who swore to the affidavits” on behalf of the centre went to the building and removed materials for him to use in his court application.

In his arguments too, he also told the court that up to yesterday, staff was in the building that they had not relinquished possession of it and it was never taken by anyone and that the statement by the AG was misleading.

Nandlall emphasised that they are maintaining possession of the building in the interim and that they have the order protecting its contents. He believes that is sufficient to protect the status quo until they return to court on February 20, 2017.

The AG was given leave to file an affidavit in answer within 14 days and he (Nandlall) was given leave to reply to that affidavit. There was no statement from the AG or the government yesterday on the court matter or the confrontation at Red House.

In his affidavit, Ally averred that during negotiations with the government, CJRCI had proposed to consent to an abridging of the 99-year lease and the payment of an increased rental but that even though he had undertaken to transmit the proposals to his principals and to provide feedback, the AG had not done this.

Ally also attested that the volume of the contents in Red House is large, occupying three floors.

Aside from the conservatory orders, Ally is seeking a declaration that the lease is valid, binding and in force, and a declaration that the likely revocation would be contrary to the plaintiff’s fundamental rights and freedoms. Damages are also being sought.

`Unbelievable act’

Earlier yesterday at a press conference, Jagdeo had said that the PPP/C would challenge the government’s decision to revoke the lease.

He described the revocation of the lease as an “unbelievable act” and the product of a “warped mind.”

Flanked by PPP/C MPs, Jagdeo said the lease revocation is a callous act when one considers the role that the late President Cheddi Jagan played in the pre-independence struggles, the fight for free and fair elections and for the development of Guyana.

He said no one should deny Dr Jagan a special place in the hearts of all Guyanese and for generations to be able to follow his works.

Jagdeo contrasted the lease revocation with the manner in which the PPP/C government he headed had handled a freehold title application by the family of Forbes Burnham for five acres of land across from the Botanical Gardens.

Jagdeo noted that this lease had been granted to the family and that the land was eventually sold for a large sum. He charged that the APNU+AFC government was becoming increasingly repressive.

At the Red House, he told the media that yesterday’s action was “heinous and reprehensible” on the part of the government.

“They have so many things to deal with in this country than to come and do what they did today to forcibly eject the Cheddi Jagan Centre from this building. You wouldn’t do that to an ordinary person; the state cannot act in this way even in an ordinary circumstance with an ordinary person because people are protected once they have a lease…”

He added: “But to do this to Cheddi Jagan and his legacy is the height of indecency and callousness and this government would long be judged in the future for this act that it committed today and is seeking to do.”

He said that the PPP will continue to work with the court and to comply with the order for the possession of the building.

When asked, Nandlall said the lease is still valid and cannot be revoked in the summary manner in which the president has done it.

“You know that even if you rent a bottom-house there is a process” of giving notice but even then a tenant cannot be evicted without court proceedings.

He pointed out that “what the president is telling the nation is that if you rented your house to anybody you can determine one morning that the lease is invalid and kick them out… All the protection which is accorded to a tenant, he has thrown out the window.”

Personal uses

The drama did not end there.  During the PPP/C’s candlelight vigil last night, Minister Lawrence  showed up with   a dozen supporters of APNU and stood outside of the building while the members and supporters of the CJRCI locked themselves in the compound of Red House.

Lawrence told Stabroek News, “I am out here I am protesting the fact that anybody who has been given the permission to hold high office can take state office and turn it for their own personal uses. The building behind us here known as Red House is state property.”

She added that the building is the property of all Guyanese and it must be used to benefit every citizen.  “This property belongs to the people of Guyana, I am a … born Guyanese and I am saying that this property must be used for all Guyanese. If it is going to be used for presidents then all the presidents have to be represented here and it has to be open for the public it cannot be for one set of people,” the Social Protection Minister said.

She went on to state that since her government took office it was announced that they would be recovering state assets and the PPP had time to  meet with the body constituted to take care of the National Archives.  “PPP can’t give themselves a lease. That body must have a say. A political party cannot usurp the power of the National Archives.”

The minister added that the PPP should have visited the National Trust and shared their thoughts and proposals on what “they would like to see happen and enquire what are the plans from the National Trust for this building. Theses strong-arm tactics are not going work.”

Lawrence said that she is prepared to stay on site to demonstrate her disapproval of the PPP’s action “I come prepared. I have my umbrella, I have a chair in the vehicle… if I have to stay here for the whole night, two days, three days… I to go back to work till Tuesday so if I have to stay here and then leave to go work that is what I am going to do,” she declared.

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