State assets bill passed

-PPP/C signals court challenge

A parliamentary debate cut short because of time constraints followed by a PPP/C walkout saw the controversial State Assets Recovery Bill being passed shortly before 10pm yesterday.

With the bill likely to be assented to within days and operationalized, there will be intensified speculation about who faces the seizure of assets and the PPP/C signalled yesterday that a court challenge to the bill is imminent.

The 2pm to 10pm session saw heated arguments from both sides of the divide with the opposition stressing that the bill was a partisan one aimed at targeting them and intimidating their supporters, and government countering that it was simply fulfilling a United Nations agreement that the PPP/C had signed and ensuring the future assets of the state were secured.

After the walkout, PPP Executive Juan Edghill told  the press that his party felt wronged at not being able to defend its position that the bill was being passed illegally.  “He (the Speaker)  essentially shut (down)  our presentation. We were building a case to show the illegality, unconstitutionality and every reason why this bill should not merely go to a select committee but needs to be revamped,” he lamented.

“What is happening in the House right now, is that having had a debate, not even the Attorney General who laid the bill is even responding to it. What was said to clarify to the public if what we said was correct or not correct? This is a mad haste to pass through this legislation,” he added.

Absent from yesterday’s sitting were Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo and the  PPP/C’s Chief Whip Gail Teixeira among others.

The Bill, presented by Attorney General Basil Williams is intended to give effect to the non-conviction-based asset recovery recommendations contained in the United Nations (UN) Convention against Corruption 2003, which was ratified by the Government of Guyana in April 2008. “The Bill therefore introduces legislation to combat unlawful conduct and corrupt practices in relation to property and other assets owned by the State, or in which the State has an interest,” it states.

It is divided in seven parts dealing with the establishment of SARA, the establishment of the Recovery of State Assets Fund, civil recovery and preservation of state property obtained through unlawful conduct and orders to assist investigation and international co-operation among others.

Williams yesterday noted that the bill was government’s reaffirmation to stamping out corruption and said that there would no “safe haven for corrupt persons”. He said it was government’s vision to build institutions based on justice and integrity.

However, because of time constraints, Williams only presented the bill and did not put up an argument for it.

Since the Bill’s first reading, back in January of this year, it has been heavily criticized by several groups, including the Private Sector Commission (PSC), the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) and the opposition PPP/C, who have said that among a myriad of other flaws it  would threaten fundamental rights.

Calls were made for a review of the draft Bill and for more consultations so that the opinions of stakeholders could be heard. The State Assets Recovery Bill 2017 and the draft Bill according to Stabroek News’s observation are almost identical.

 ‘Partisan’
A point of much discontent by opposition members of parliament was that the bill was partisan and  crafted to target them and their supporters.

“The appointive committee must appoint the director and appoint the CEO and that is how it is supposed to go…we cannot possibly think that the present director and present officers of that agency can be legitimately called fit and proper in the context of the way fit and proper has been defined. Fit and proper has to be devoid of political associations,” PPP/C’s executive Priya Manickchand told the House.

Further, she added, “I am saying very clearly that one of the objections is the partisan nature of that body.

Using excerpts from several Stabroek News articles, which stated the public postures and criticisms of several groups, Manickchand made her case as to why it was premature to pass the bill yesterday.

“Are one of these people worthy of being listened to? Go back to the drawing board let’s fix this issue. Why are you bringing a bill that you know will be halted before it begins,” she asserted.

Pointing to controversial state deals, such as the Sussex Street Bond Rental, the $605M drug purchase and the D’Urban Park Project, that the nearly two-year-old APNU+AFC government has faced, Manickchand said that her beliefs that SARA would target PPP/C MPs was rooted in the fact that not one of them have been mentioned by SARA’s soon-to-be-heads. Yet, an official of SARU was on record in this newspaper as saying they were ready to go after stolen assets the day after the bill is passed.

“This bill is politically motivated and this bill just gives them teeth that they never had before.  …We are asking on behalf of the people of this country …that the bill (be given)  a second look… Let us come out as a model country that conforms to the UNCAC,” she added, not before promising that her party will challenge the bill in court.

Another PPP/C MP, Dharamkumar Seeraj, echoed much of what she said. “The bill can be used by the political directorate and be made a political tool, in the hands of a government that intends to be oppressive against political opponents”, he said.

‘Future safeguard’
But when APNU+AFC member and Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman argued a case for the government, he said that the PPP/C was scaremongering its own supporters with falsehoods pertaining to the bill.

He stressed that Guyana’s citizenry should welcome the bill as it safeguards the country’s resources into the future. And with Guyana poised to soon start earning revenue from its newfound  oil resources, the bill was “critical and imperative for what is to come,” in ensuring that public officials don’t steal or squander those resources.

“Economic crimes have been found to be as crippling to a nation as wars…this bill sets out the category, class and genre that will be targeted. This bill, it is critical and imperative for what is to come…When we are told that people are trembling it is not true.  We are not after the parking meter protestor, the farmer, the taxi driver, the fisher folk. Neither are we after the vendor, the public servant, the soldier, the cook or the businessman…  we are after persons like you (pointing to the opposition) and persons who are even on this side,” he asserted.

“This is not a bill that comes after you alone it comes after all of us. What must be said of a government that will bring even its own members to heel?… So all this talk about us going after business persons and people on the road is simply false. We are more exposed than you are because we are in government. It may be unpalatable to some, but at the end of the day it strengthens the fabric of Guyana. Imagine that this country has a windfall for oil revenue and don’t have legislation…we pass over glaring cases of corruption. Without laws to regulate…and  prosecute, we will run amok. A nation with plenty but without any order will find itself in trouble due to theft and kleptocracy… that has ruined many, many countries. This bill, it  is going to ensure what it has to do to protect this country,” he added.

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