Friday, July 4, 2008

Questions. Stabroek News Editorial.

Questions. Stabroek News Editorial.
29 June 2008

Last Saturday Mr Leonard Arokium emerged from the jungle with a horrific tale to tell: all eight of his men – two of whom were close relatives – had been killed in the most brutal fashion and their bodies burnt at his mining camp in Lindo Creek. This was not, however, a repeat of Lusignan or Bartica, where in a general sense the perpetrators were a known quantity; in this instance Mr Arokium from the beginning insisted that the Joint Services were responsible for the miners’ deaths.

The evidence in the public domain, such as it is, is not unequivocal and some of it is contradictory. However, there is enough there to make it impossible at this stage to eliminate members of the army and police force from consideration – which is not the same thing as to say that any of them are guilty of this crime. For their part the Joint Services and Commissioner of Police (ag) Henry Greene have maintained that the murders were committed by Rondell Rawlins and his gang, and from the public’s point of view, they cannot reasonably be eliminated from consideration either at this stage.

It will be remembered that a police unit engaged the Rawlins gang on June 6 in a camp near Christmas Falls which is sited about nine or ten miles upriver from Mr Arokium’s camp at Lindo Creek. One man was killed in that exchange, and about six others escaped. A little over a week later, some men hijacked a minibus on the Aroaima trail 90 miles away, while the same day two members of the gang were killed by the security forces at Goat Farm. A teenager, hungry and delirious was also picked up at Ituni. He was reported to have confessed to being at the Christmas Falls camp with Rawlins, and said he had been left in the bush while the others went on ahead because he couldn’t keep up in the rough terrain. He was also reported as having told police that after escaping from Christmas Falls the gang had made a raft out of conga pump, and had crossed to the other side of the Berbice River.

It has never been made entirely clear whether all the gang turned up to rob the minibus, or whether after Christmas Falls, they split into two groups, as was suggested to this newspaper by one high level source. Certainly after the June 6 episode, senior officials went on record as saying that the gang was trapped in the jungle, and there was at least one report indicating there was evidence of them cutting trails moving south deeper into the forest.

The matter of in which direction the wanted men moved has been addressed by Mr Arokium, a surveyor by profession with an excellent grasp of the topography, who has explained in some detail why it is unlikely both for geographical and security reasons they would have taken themselves to his camp after the June 6 raid. While what he had to say on the subject was eminently rational, it is no guarantee, of course, that the men behaved rationally when they first ran away. But if the early reports of them moving south initially are correct, then that would lend support to Mr Arokium’s contentions.

There is a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence around, the accuracy of which is difficult to establish. The most problematical is the matter of what the gunmen who held up the minibus on the Aroaima trail had to say. One relative of a murdered miner told this newspaper that it had been reported that the bandits had informed passengers they knew they were going to die because “the soldiers and police had shot and burned some miners in a mining camp.” In contrast to this, later in the week another newspaper said a Joint Services “assessment” suggested that Rawlins had boasted about the killings while hijacking the minibus. If the first version is correct, one can only wonder how it was that the gunmen knew the miners had been killed and their bodies burnt by the Joint Services, especially if they had gone first in the opposite direction to the camp, and/or if they had crossed the river.

The hard evidence too is problematical. The police collected four shells from the Lindo Creek camp, and Mr Courtney Wong who guided them in and was present at the time, told this newspaper that a soldier said it looked like the ones they used and that the number at the back matched. This newspaper and another had quoted sources as saying that the shells did not correspond to any recovered following attacks by the bandits, however this was contradicted subsequently by the authorities who said that three of them did. The problem is, the public has absolutely no confidence in the ballistics results issued by the police, and especially not in circumstances like these.

There are other things also to be taken into account: some of the miners may have been tortured or if not killed by a hammer, rather than being shot. If they were tortured, then why? All the bodies were burnt along with various possessions. Why? Mr Arokium’s first thesis was that the Joint Services had killed his men by mistake, and then burnt everything to cover up what they had done. According to this theory, presumably the torturing would have been to extract information about ‘Fineman,’ although hitting someone on the head with a sledgehammer hardly seems the most effective way to go about this. And if any miners were killed by the hammer, why should soldiers or police take this route, when they could just have shot them? Rawlins, on the other hand, who might have got away with a weapon – or even two – would not have wanted to waste limited ammunition.

Later Mr Arokium was reported by Kaieteur News as putting forward another hypothesis, namely that robbery on the part of a couple of renegade ranks had been the motive. This was after he had explained that there was interaction between the soldiers and his men in the Lindo camp. In an entirely different context Commissioner Greene did tell the media that the police were looking for the two soldiers who were at the UNAMCO checkpoint, which invites speculation as to why it seems so hard to find them. However, there was clearly more than one group of servicemen in the vicinity after June 6 looking for Rawlins, and no one outside the Joint Services knows whether they had all been properly briefed about the area or where they were at any given point in time.

The question is, if the ‘Fineman’ gang is the guilty party, why would they go to the trouble of burning bodies, etc? Certainly, the modus operandi appears to have their characteristics as officials have said, but it doesn’t really explain everything if they were on the run at the time. It is always possible to speculate, of course, that they knew of the existence of the miners and decided they were a threat, but that would mean they would have killed them before June 6, which at the moment appears very much an outside possibility. Later than that, one would have to theorize about them taking revenge if they suspected the miners had found out about their presence and had reported them. But still, the question remains, after June 6 why hang around to cremate bodies?

Given the allegations the government should have taken the kind of measures which would either clear the Joint Services completely, or identify any renegade members who had betrayed their uniform. The good news is the President’s decision to bring in foreign forensic assistance, although whether that will be able to establish exactly when the men died – a critical piece of data – is simply not known by the layman. Even without that, however, as was suggested by a conversation between two soldiers overheard by Mr Wong on June 22, army personnel may have seen smoke when overflying the area, and if so, the date of that could be established. One could only have wished that the government had allowed independent observers with cameras to go in with the police and army to Lindo Creek last Sunday to record, among other things, the shells and their location; ballistics in particular, is the Achilles Heel of the police. The government cannot afford even the smidgeon of a suggestion of a cover-up, more especially if there really is nothing to cover up.

At the moment there are still more questions than answers.

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