Columns

Focus on crime & politics in Guyana

ANALYSIS

Rickey SINGH

Sunday, October 21, 2012    

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WHEN a distinguished five-member Commission of Enquiry was sworn in early last month to probe and pronounce on disturbances in Guyana's bauxite mining town of Linden that involved clashes between police and Lindeners resulting in three deaths, it was not envisaged that the Guyana Police Force (GPF) would have been drawn into a confrontation with the parliamentary Opposition parties over new fatal shooting conflicts.

But this is the current scenario, even as the commissioners from Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago were continuing their public hearings this past week in Georgetown amid familiar replays of 'crime and politics' that have become distressing features of the political culture in various member states of our Caribbean Community.

The high-level probe team into the disturbances in Linden, with a particular focus on the shooting deaths of three protesters on July 18 during a promised "peaceful march" for which police permission was granted, is headed by Jamaica's former Chief Justice Lensley Wolfe.

The four other members are: Guyana's retired chancellor of the judiciary, Cecil Kennard; Jamaica's senior counsel and former National Security Minister KD Knight (also an ex-foreign minister); Trinidad and Tobago's senior counsel and former independent senator Dana Seetahal; and Guyana's former Appeal Court judge, Claudette Singh.

By last Wednesday, the Guyanese public were to learn from evidence given to the enquiry that contrary to recurring claims by the parliamentary Opposition -- A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and Alliance for Change (AFC) that together have a one-seat majority in the nation's 65-member Parliament -- the three protesters killed did not die from bullets fired by police at the scene of the disturbance.

Wolfe's decision

Later, and contrary to sustained claims from the Opposition, commission chairman Wolfe had to remind the senior lawyer representing families of the deceased Linden trio, Nigel Hughes (who is also chairman of the AFC), that they had no cause so far to invite Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee to hearings as he had not been implicated in relation to those deaths of July 18.

Compared with overall murder rates as well as cases of killings by police in anti-crime activities, Guyana would fall well below the top three affected countries in the Caribbean Community in an assessment of data over the past five years, with Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago being very much at the top.

Yet, while just two months ago the Guyana Police Force was pointing to declining rates in murder and armed robberies for 2012, the shooting deaths of six Guyanese by the lawmen in four separate incidents within the past three months have become heavily politicised by the parliamentary Opposition, resulting in what's being currently described as the descent of a "siege mentality" in some communities.

Like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana also bears the social and economic burden resulting from narco-trafficking and gun-running as part of the crime problem.

Clear difference

But there is a clear difference in the current Guyanese scenario of Opposition parliamentarians' involvement in organising protests against the police, as part of an anti-government campaign strategy that may have no political equivalent elsewhere in Caricom.

Last July 18, when the trio were shot to death in Linden, hundreds of protestors were involved in a fierce clash with the police as they protested a phased hike in electricity tariff for residential consumers to eventually bring it to the prevailing level being paid by consumers across the nation.

That tragedy has followed anti-government activities in Linden by representatives of the main Opposition party, APNU (dominated by the old People's National Congress) and Alliance for Change. Together, they acquired a first-time one-seat majority in the Parliament.

On the basis of a negotiated tripartite accord, initiated by President Donald Ramotar, the five-member Commission of Enquiry was established on the basis of an agreed terms of reference with the deaths of the trio of protesters as a core feature.

However, while the commission was conducting hearings, the Opposition intensified an earlier campaign for the dismissal of Home Affairs Minister Rohee. It had fingered him for blame as allegedly being involved in giving instructions to the police at the time of the tragedy.

Neither Police Commissioner Leroy Brummel, nor the senior officer in command at Linden on the day of the tragedy, (Clifton Hicken), came anywhere near to giving credence to such an allegation when they offered evidence before the commission.

Last week, a United Kingdom ballistics expert, Dr Mark Anderson, told the 'Wolfe Commission' that from his own investigations he had "no evidence" to allow him to conclude that shots fired that caused the deaths of the three protesters had come from police guns.

Of three other separate incidents involving shooting deaths by the police within the past three months while on assignments, one youth was accidentally shot, according to the cops, and the matter remains under investigation.

But it was the killing by the cops of a young resident of Agricola Village (Shaquille Grant), south of the capital Georgetown around which the Opposition parties intensified anti-government, anti-police protest actions and, more specifically, called for the dismissal of Minister Rohee.

The minority AFC went as far as giving a 48-hour ultimatum last week on behalf of the Opposition for Rohee's dismissal, or face "mass protests".

When the ultimatum expired and the Government showed no signs of genuflecting, (there is, of course, no precedent for such a response in Caricom), mayhem erupted in Agricola.

Police attacked

There were reports of hostile attacks on the police; beatings and robberies of villagers and commuters; and the blocking of major transportation routes that left hundreds stranded during an estimated five-hour stand-off.

President Ramotar angrily declared in a statement that Agricola's violent disturbances were "well planned and centrally directed" by forces linked with the parliamentary Opposition.

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), the major umbrella body of the country's leading unions, deemed the development as sheer "hooliganism...acts of outright thuggery", that cannot be accepted, and quite harmful for the peace and progress of the nation.

Significantly, while the AFC was maintaining its fiery rhetoric against the Government and the police, APNU chose to lower its own involvement profile by distancing itself from the violence that erupted and the horrors suffered by innocent commuters, among them school children.

However, the AFC appeared determined to pursue extra-parliamentary tactics against the Government, even amid conflicting signals that APNU may be in the process of reconsidering strategies and tactics to embarrass and frustrate both the police force and the Government.

This November 28 will mark one year since the two Opposition parties secured their one-seat parliamentary majority. But there is yet to be any sign of a desire for serious rapport, any significant initiative between the Opposition and the Government for structured dialogue in the national interest, instead of the widening politics of confrontation and destabilisation.

Meanwhile, the commission of enquiry continues to carry out its mandate on the shooting deaths of three protesters as well as relevant developments associated with what came to be known, in and out of Guyana, as the 'Linden crisis' of July 2012.

This past week's hearings by the 'Wolfe Commission' may not have been a good one for the country's parliamentary Opposition. They had to contend, for instance, with the chairman's decision that no reason had so far surfaced to invite Minister Rohee, as well as the earlier disclosure by the UK ballistics expert, Dr Anderson, that his findings had turned up no evidence that the shots which killed the three Linden protesters had come from police guns.

Nevertheless, there is no escaping the prevailing tension between the Opposition and the Guyana Police Force as the country braces for further anti-government protest activities.

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