Gov't of Antigua under fire for Ronald Sanders issue

BY RICKEY SINGH Observer Caribbean Correspondent

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

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THE controversial move last week by the Antigua and Barbuda Police Force, in cooperation with the Government of Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, to go public with a statement for the respected Sir Ronald Sanders to voluntarily present himself for questioning as "a person of interest" in an alleged fraud case, has drawn condemnation.

Among those who have condemned the action are two senior counsels — former attorney general, Sir Gerald Watt and Dominican lawyer Anthony Astaphan — as well as a former police commissioner, Rawlston Pompey, who described the move as a "gross abuse of power" and violation of an individual's constitutional right to due process.

They said that "there is no precedent" for such an action in the Caribbean against someone who is neither a fugitive from justice nor facing any criminal charges.

Said Sir Gerald: "The Antigua police have handled this case very badly and should now apologise to Sir Ronald... To declare someone as 'a person of interest is a euphemism for suggesting that the individual is involved in a criminal matter."

The Government's action has also been viewed by Antiguans as a plan to publicly convey the wrong impression that Sir Ronald — a former diplomat and currently a regular contributor for various regional media companies — as a "wanted person".

Sir Ronald, who lives in Barbados and also has a home in England, however, made clear that he has "never been personally contacted by either the police or any official from the Spencer administration" to "cooperate as a "person of interest" in the matter. But he said he was "ready to be questioned by the Antigua and Barbuda police at any time..."

Also, in a brief media statement earlier this week, the UK-based law firm, BCL Burton Copeland, acting on behalf of Sir Ronald said:

"We strongly deplore the statement concerning him emanating from the authorities in Antigua. To say that he could not be reached is absurd since; as a regional commentator his website and means of contact appears weekly throughout the Caribbean..."

The statement calling for Sir Ronald to make himself available for questioning, which was reported in the media, was also posted on the Government's official website. It was removed from the website last weekend after an apparent legal advice given to the administration.

The allegations of complicity in a fraudulent engagement in which Sir Ronald was named as a "person of interest", also include former Prime Minister Lester Bird, and ex-cabinet colleague, Asot Michael, both sitting members of Parliament. The allegations have been constantly denied by all three.

The allegations followed a US$29.07 million loan to the state some 15 years ago for the Antigua Public Utilities (APU), repayable with interest, from the Japanese enterprise Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Company (IHI). The venture also involved Swiss billionaire Bruce Rappaport, now dead, but whose estate has honoured claims of outstanding indebtedness.

Within a year after his United Progressive Party (UPP) first came to power in March 2004, the Spencer administration initiated investigation into claims of corruption in the debt repayment transaction involving the HHI multi-million agreement and based, it said, on the report of a forensic investigator, Robert Lindquist. The report was submitted about five years ago.

The submission of the report was followed by a sequence of initiatives by the Spencer Government, only to be subsequently abandoned. These included civil proceedings brought against Bird and Michael in a court in Miami that was later withdrawn, and an abandoned commission of inquiry in 2009 into the same allegations of fraud in the HHI venture.

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