Cocaine trafficking convict Vishnu ‘Haffa’ Bridgelall is being investigated by the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) for alleged money laundering, according to the agency’s head Sydney James.
This investigation can lead to the forfeiture of whatever assets, including property that Bridgelall holds in Guyana.
The convict left for Canada to seek medical treatment after being discharged by the Full Court in 2009 and has never returned.
The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) recently upheld his conviction but Bridgelall was spared jail time because of the delays in the appeal process. It also ordered that he pay the $254 million in fines that were imposed alongside his sentence.
Contacted recently on whether Bridgelall is being investigated by the unit, James responded in the affirmative. When asked about the seizure of Bridgelall’s assets, he revealed that last October, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) referred a file pertaining to Bridgelall to the unit, which led to a money laundering investigation being initiated.
While James did not want to reveal further details since the investigation is an active one, it would appear that the probe picked up steam following the recent decision made by the CCJ. The CCJ is the final appellate court for Guyana.
Bridgelall was one of several persons who had been charged following a Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU) raid in May, 2007, at Enterprise, East Coast Demerara, where agents discovered over 100 kilogrammes of cocaine in fish glue being prepared for export.
On May 17, 2007 when Bridgelall and three others were arraigned, Chandrika Chattergoon, called ‘Percy’, 27, of 185 Charlotte Street, Enter-prise had pleaded guilty. Principal Magistrate Melissa Robertson-Ogle, before whom they had appeared, had sentenced Chattergoon to four years in prison on each count and remanded the other three, after turning down bail applications by their lawyers.
Bridgelall’s two co-accused, Thakoor Persaud, called ‘Thaks’, 32, of Lot ‘K’ Soesdyke and Azad Khan, called ‘Waqar’, 32, of 6 Madewini, both on the East Bank Demerara, were subsequently exonerated at trial by Magistrate Sherdel Isaacs, while Bridgelall was found guilty of two counts of possession of over $84 million worth of cocaine for trafficking.
Magistrate Isaacs ordered that he be jailed for ten years and imposed fines totalling $254 million.
Bridgelall appealed his conviction at the Full Court, which discharged him on December 4, 2009, by which time he had served 30 months of his 10-year sentence.
The state subsequently appealed the Full Court decision to the Guyana Court of Appeal and on October 24, 2016 – nearly seven years later – the Court of Appeal reinstated the magistrate’s ten-year sentence against Bridgelall. In December, 2016, Bridgelall appealed Court of Appeal ruling at the CCJ.
It is unclear if Bridgelall’s prolonged absence from this jurisdiction may hamper SOCU’s investigation.
The Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Act of 2009 gives the police the authority to seize any document or property in relation to a serious offence, money laundering or terrorist financing, “on condition that the entry, search and seizure is made with the consent of the occupier of the land or the premises or under warrant issued under this Act.”
With regards to the freezing and forfeiture of assets in relation to money laundering, the Act says a court can be approached for a restraining order.
Section 38 of the Act states that the DPP may apply to the Court for a restraining order against “any realisable property held by the accused or specified realisable property held by a person other than the accused.”
It states that such an application may be made ex parte and shall be in writing and be accompanied by an affidavit stating:
“(a) where the accused has been convicted of a serious offence, the serious offence for which the accused was convicted, the date of the conviction, the court before which the conviction was obtained and whether an appeal has been lodged against the conviction; (b) where the accused has not been convicted of a serious offence for which the accused is charged or about to be charged, or is being investigated for, the grounds for believing that the defendant committed the offence; (c) a description of the property in respect of which the restraining order is sought; (d) the name and address of the person who is believed to be in possession of the property; (e) the grounds for the belief that the property is tainted property in relation to the offence; or (f) the grounds for the belief that the accused derived a benefit directly or indirectly from the commission of the offence; where the application seeks a restraining order against property of a person other than the defendant, the grounds for the belief that the property is tainted property in relation to the offence or realizable property that is subject to the effective control of the accused or is a gift caught by this Act; (h) the grounds for the belief that a forfeiture order or a pecuniary penalty order may be or is likely to be made under this Part in respect of the property.”
This section of the Act points out that where, upon application by the DPP, the Court that heard the criminal case is satisfied that property is tainted property in respect of a serious offence of which a person has been convicted, the Court may order that the specified property be forfeited.
It states that in making the determination that a property is tainted, the Court may infer, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, “that the property was used in or in connection with the commission of a serious offence if it was in the person’s possession at the time of, or immediately after the commission of the serious offence for which the person was convicted; that the property was derived, obtained or realised as a result of the commission of the serious offence if it was acquired by the person before, during or within six years after the period of the commission of the serious offence of which the person was convicted, and the Court is satisfied that the income of that person from sources unrelated to criminal activity of that person cannot reasonably account for the acquisition of that property.”
The CCJ, in its ruling, affirmed the conviction of Bridgelall on each of the two charges laid against him but altered the two consecutive five-year sentences handed down by Magistrate Isaacs to two concurrent sentences. In its judgement, the court also declared that Bridgelall’s constitutional right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time had been breached and the court, therefore, stayed any further action against Bridgelall arising out of the proceedings with respect to enforcement of the remainder of the prison sentences imposed by the magistrate.
According to the judgement, having already served 30 months of concurrent five-year sentences, Bridgelall would have been eligible for remission in respect of 24 of those months. “He has already served, at the very least, one half of his sentence and has gotten on with his life. He is currently in Canada and, according to what we have been told, under doctor’s orders that it is inadvisable for him to travel,” the court said.
It was pointed out too that the Constitution does not circumscribe the nature or extent of the redress the judiciary is entitled to afford a litigant whose fundamental rights have been breached. The judgement said the court considered that the appropriate remedy in this matter would be to stay any further action against Bridgelall with respect to the enforcement of the imposed prison sentence arising out of these proceedings but he “must pay his fine, if he has not already done so.” It was made clear that because of the undue delay during the appeal process, he should not go back to prison however justified that would have been if no such delay had occurred.
It has been established that Bridgelall has made no moves to pay the fine. Supreme Court Registrar Sueanna Lovell recently said that it is now up to the state to ensure he pays up.
Speaking based her knowledge, she said that the state, in seeking to enforce the judgement, may go after property or money that the person may still have in Guyana. She was unsure if in this instance the state will have to go back to court to initiate forfeiture procedures to get what is owed or whether it can proceed, based on the judgement, and seize property owned by the convict to satisfy that aspect of the judgement.
Asked if steps will have to be taken to get the money, she said, “Yes, they will have to, providing that the state is interested enough in seeking to enforce that.”