Clearly in retaliation to the government’s – by way of the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) – charging in their absence former minister of finance and chairperson of NICIL Ashni Singh and former NICIL head Winston Brassington with misconduct in public office for selling government lands without proper valuation or under the assessed value, last week two opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) MPs, Juan Edghill and Vickram Bharrat, brought private prosecutions against ministers Volda Lawrence and George Norton for misconduct in public office.
Respectively, they are said to have instructed the administrator of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation to sole-source a substantial amount of drugs and rented a house that was unsuitable as a pharmaceutical bond at a rent way above its market value. On Monday, another private prosecution was brought by former attorney general Anil Nandlall against three other ministers: Winston Jordan and David Patterson for misconduct in public office in relation to the D’Urban Park project and Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine for alleged misconduct and the abuse of public trust for receiving, while being a government minister, $906 million in his capacity as a director of the company that began construction on the project.
Both the government and the opposition have called on the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to withdraw the charges, which they claimed are politically motivated. So far she has done so in the first two cases involving government ministers stating that ‘These charges concern a grave issue under the criminal law in relation to two serving Ministers. In the interest of good governance in the State of Guyana such allegations ought first to have been reported to the Guyana Police Force for an investigation to be launched and the advice of the DPP sought.’ In other words, far from the charges having been totally dismissed, until they are finally investigated and concluded, they are likely to be a source of persistent concern for those involved and propaganda material for the PPP/C.
In British-type legal systems, bringing private prosecutions is not usual, so let me provide some context by making a few points. Firstly, the evolution of the criminal prosecution and punishment process provides a good example of how our mindset can be totally transformed over time. Today, even in Guyana, where the state is not considered as impartial by most people (or to put it another way, where it is only considered impartial when it is in the hands of our ethnic side) we view prosecution by the state as the norm, but it was not always so and right up to about the end of the nineteenth century, private prosecution for wrongs against the individual was the standard. However, today in normal situations, much of the legitimacy of the criminal justice system rests on the fact that prosecutions are brought in the name of the state and not any individual, and are prosecuted by state-employed attorneys to acquire ‘justice’ for those involved rather than to simply ‘win’.
Secondly, given how Guyanese view the state, it is quite surprising that recourse to private prosecutions has not been more frequent. Perhaps this is because in the eyes of many, the judiciary usually quickly succumbs to the decades-long governments with which we have been cursed. In the face of regime intransigence there has, however, been recourse to private criminal prosecutions. Eusi Kwayana often used and got them thrown out by the government of the day. Famously, in 2002, he brought one against Steve Merai, senior superintendent of the Target Special Squad, for the killing of Buxtonian and People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) member Shaka Blair, which many see as a landmark in the 2002 to 2008 ‘troubles’ ‘resistance’ that resulted in the loss of many lives. Indeed, the PPP/C government not only closed down the case but went on to promote Merai (‘Promotion of Mr. Merai is an act of provocation:’ SN: 9/1/2009). And only in 2015, Christopher Ram, gaining some propaganda value, took former president Jagdeo to court for the allegedly racial content of a speech he made at Babu John.
Internationally, the 1993 racially motivated murder of Steven Lawrence in London suggests that although a private prosecution may be withdrawn or lost in court, that is not necessarily the end of the story. Initially, the main suspects in that case were acquitted for insufficient evidence. The Lawrence family then brought private prosecution against them only to have the charges dropped before the trial for unreliable and insufficient evidence. But after almost a decade of persistent lobbying and agitating, the original suspects were put on trial by the state and in 2012, two were found guilty of murder.
In my view, then, while somewhat predictable in its basic outcome, if, as the DPP suggests the matters against the government ministers reaches the police, the options available to the government are not good. The investigations could be stalled at the level of the police, pursued in a timely manner to obtain a favourable legal outcome in the courts or the DPP could finally close the matters for insufficient evidence. Though tempting, stalling will be of massive propaganda value to the PPP/C in what promises to be a long electoral season from now through local government elections to the 2020 general election. Even if successfully defended, the latter will most likely open a Pandora’s Box of questionable dealings that are also bound to mitigate the actions of Ashni Singh and Winston Brassington. If the DPP abandons the matters for insufficient evidence, can she do so without giving a good public reasoning, which is also likely to provide fodder for the opposition propaganda mill? The latter bearing in mind our ‘bottom house’ political tradition and the fact that as a subject of the present government investigation into the Prado 2 land allocation, the DPP is in a conflict of interest and could be construed as operating under duress.
But the regime’s difficulties do not end there for the logic of its virulent pre-election anticorruption platform has now turned upon it as I detect among its traditional, African Guyanese, supporters what I found among them during the 2016 local government election in Beterverwagting village, namely, a struggle for objectivity and independent political space in our deeply ethnicised political context. For example, a few days ago, in discussion with an extremely staunch PNCR supporter who freely confesses that he will do almost anything to keep the current government in office, the possible jeopardy posed to the ministers if the prosecutions should have succeeded arose and to my surprise he quite nonchalantly said ‘Who cares? Lock them up!’ His contention was that no one should be allowed to rifle the public purse and go unpunished. The moral underpinnings of being against corruption is being universalized and never reverential about their political leaders, now that his party is in control of the state he has made a critical differentiation between his ethnic army, the PNCR and its individual generals, who are considered dispensable.
If its intention is to win free and fair elections the APNU+AFC government needs to be very studied as it goes forward. The intemperate will claim that when elections arrive propaganda would not matter as people will flock to vote for their ethnic parties. However, hopefully such people remember that the present government is in office with less than 5,000 votes and there is a floating middle group out there that is substantially more than that. Persistent propaganda is the stuff that weakens political allegiances, political will and political participation.