Saturday, June 21, 2008

Death squads inquiry

Death squads inquiry
Stabroek News editorial. Monday 16 June 2008

It is becoming impossible for the government to plausibly resist a comprehensive, independent inquiry of the death squad phenomena and the violence that gripped the East Coast following the 2002 prison-break.
Each charge and counter charge fired between counsel for Roger Khan and the US government perceptibly creates a clearer picture of what transpired during that period. It is fitting that the revelations are emanating from the US courts so that there is no appearance or likelihood of bias as has tended to afflict proceedings in this jurisdiction.
There is no escaping this inquiry. Denial of it will become an albatross around the neck of this administration as evidenced by the allegation that Khan had imported sensitive spy equipment with the permission of the government.
What led the country to the brink during that period is known by all. The escape of five dangerous criminals and the murderous campaign that they spearheaded against poor and wealthy citizens, law enforcement and the business community led to chaos, panic and bloodletting on a scale that had not been previously witnessed in the country’s history. In a particular stretch of 2002-3 there were slaughters and bullet-riddled robberies on an almost daily basis.
With dozens of policemen eventually dying in carefully orchestrated attacks it appeared that many in the government had come to the conclusion that the Joint Services were incapable of reining in the mayhem on their own. How and who then enlisted extra-legal enforcers to fight the criminals and to prosecute other wars is unclear. What is certainly clear is that after this extra-legal intervention began dozens of suspected criminals – including some of the escapees and their better known cohorts – and others who likely had nothing to do with crime began dropping like flies. There were also high-voltage shoot-outs between rival groups and the bodies of several gunslingers hired from overseas turned up.
If it was the case that government officials had no inkling about what was transpiring how could the state just stand aside and survey the bloodshed from on high without trying to reassert itself? Which government would not want to get a fix on what was happening and take control of the situation? Not unless it was fully cued and clued into what was transpiring and was tactically withdrawing to the sidelines to allow others to take on the fight.
It wasn’t until the self-professed death squad informant George Bacchus’s brother was murdered that the stark outlines of what was taking place broke through the surface. Aside from the talk on the streets and the rumour mill, no one had put names, faces and a framework to what was possibly happening. Bacchus changed that but was ultimately unable to prove his case as he too was mysteriously murdered. His allegations had likely become too dangerous for some. But by then everyone had learnt about Axel Williams and his missions and the distinct possibility that he was finally executed because he knew too much about the extra-legal campaign.
Under unrelenting domestic and international pressure, President Jagdeo finally convened an inquiry with very limited terms of reference that eventually found Home Affairs Minister Gajraj innocent of any involvement in a death squad. The circumstances that attended the inquiry were themselves unsatisfactory as matters such as witness protection were clear hindrances to full disclosure.
The President had however said that there would be the occasion for a full-fledged inquiry into the violence that followed the jail-break. He has not made good on that pledge thus far.
With the US making bold with each passing week to level new allegations against Khan such as executing people who crossed him and with Khan’s own well- publicised claims here that he assisted in the fight against crime, the government can no longer not be interested in this matter.
The image of the country, its democratic credentials and the quality of its governance have all been tainted by these sordid allegations in the last three or four years. It is time that the government purges itself of this clingy film of murkiness.
After fleeing to this country as a fugitive from the US, Khan made a meteoric rise through the wealth rankings under successive PPP/C administrations without this attracting any noticeable scrutiny by the authorities. He was on the verge of securing access to a large forest concession until this was halted following publicity surrounding the deal. His being found in close proximity to sensitive spy equipment and weaponry also did not kindle any undue interest by the government and he eventually won his case and continued with his businesses.
Plot lines like this can lead to any number of Hollywood/Bollywood ventures except that this was real life. It is easy to deny as in the case of the permission for the spy equipment. Chance are, however, that there is more to come from the US courts and that it will impact on the probity of this administration with consequences for its people.
The government cannot be oblivious to this or uncaring. With all-party agreement it must be willing to commission an independent inquiry and let the chips fall where they may.

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