By Mohabir Anil Nandlall
The news that 200 persons are ‘blacklisted’, that is, prevented from leaving the country by the Guyana Police Force, more particularly, the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU), must have sent shivers down the spine of law-abiding and freedom loving Guyanese. Were Guyana of greater global significance, this would have made the headlines at both CNN and BBC.
It is common knowledge that SOCU has not yet charged 20 persons. This means that more than 90% of the persons on that list, have not been charged. This damning revelation was made in the press two weeks ago. I waited patiently for some form of public disputation to emanate from the Guyana Police Force. None came. My colleague Member of Parliament, Bishop Juan Edghill, wrote to the Commissioner of Police on the 9th May 2017, requesting the names of the persons so ‘blacklisted’. By letter dated 22nd May 2017, the Commissioner of Police responded. Significantly, he did not deny the assertion that 200 Guyanese have been ‘blacklisted’ by the Guyana Police Force. Instead, he informed the Bishop that he was advised by the Police Legal Advisor to direct the request to the Commissioner of Information. In these circumstances, one can safely conclude that the information is accurate.
This debacle requires closer examination.
Article 148 of the Constitution
Perhaps, a convenient point to commence is by recognizing that Article 148 of the Constitution of Guyana guarantees to the individual, the freedom to leave and enter Guyana, as a fundamental right. Understandably, no right is absolute. Therefore, that constitutional provision itself imposes certain restrictions on that right. Most of those restrictions are irrelevant to the issue at hand. Those that are relevant, relate to a person being charged for, or convicted of, a criminal offence. Since more than 90 % of the persons who are the subject of this ‘blacklist’ are not charged, a consideration of the latter restrictions is also not germane to this discussion.
Under our criminal justice system and the Constitution, suspicion, at its highest, cannot and does not lawfully equal guilt. This is so because Article 144 of the Constitution ensconces the presumption of innocence as a fundamental right, as well. In consequence, the fact that a person maybe the subject of ongoing criminal investigations or, may even be the prime suspect in a criminal investigation, without more, cannot form the basis upon which he can be lawfully prevented from leaving the country. Any attempt to do so would constitute an abridgement of his or her constitutional right to leave Guyana. It then begs the question, on what basis are approximately 180 citizens of this country being denied their constitutional right to travel? The explanation for this mass abrogation of fundamental rights and freedoms lies in politics.
The Burnham/ Hoyte years
The infamous ‘blacklist’ is nothing new to the Guyanese politically-knowledgeable public. It is a relic from the Burnham/Hoyte years of Government. The younger generation may not know but this was a most potent weapon in the political armoury of the authoritarian regime of that era. It was invoked regularly to stop critics and political opponents from leaving the country. Ironically, it was used with particular vehemence against the then leadership of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), including some, who are today, so comfortably snuggled in bed with the People’s National Congress (PNC).
To attend the Independence celebrations of Zimbabwe, Dr. Walter Rodney was forced to ‘backtrack’ to Paramaribo from whence he flew to Holland en route to his final destination. He was ‘blacklisted’ at Timehri International Airport. There are reported cases with written judgements in our legal system, rendered in constitutional actions filed by Mr. Eusi Kyana, Dr. Clive Thomas, Dr. Rupert Roopnarine et al, challenging their “blacklisting”/prohibition from leaving the country in the 1980’s. Today, the same Messers Roopnarine, Thomas et al are solidly part of a regime that is doing unto others the same grievous injustice which was done unto them. And we hear not a whimper from them nor those pre-May 2015, avowed human rights champions.
As Attorney General, I was very firm in my advice to the Police regarding preventing persons from leaving the jurisdiction. In fact, I did a legal opinion for the Police Force outlining the circumstances when a person can, lawfully, be prevented from leaving the country. I was forced to do so because a High Court Judge awarded damages against the State when Immigration Officers at Cheddi Jagan International Airport, prevented an entire family from leaving Guyana for North America because their names were placed on a list, prohibiting persons from leaving the country, on the basis, that the head of the household was suspected of being involve in some form of criminality. They sued the State for violations of their constitutional rights to leave Guyana. There was, simply, no legal defence. On the other hand, I have no doubt that this current mass ‘blacklisting’ is either done upon the advice of the Attorney General or with his imprimatur. At a minimum, he cannot claim to be unaware of it.
The Police Legal Advisor
That the ‘blacklist’ phenomenon has returned I am not surprised. At the 12th Biennial Congress of the PNC held in August 2015, at Congress Place, its leader, President David Granger, proclaimed a return to ‘Burnhamism’. Only last week, we read in the press another statement by that Party, recommitting itself to ‘Burnhamism’ at the celebration of its 60th Anniversary. Quite frankly, these public pronouncements are unnecessary. From the time they took office, so many authoritarian methods of the Burnham years have returned that it is difficult to keep track. With them have come the despotic ‘blacklist’.
This current constitutional travesty is aggravated by the fact that the persons who are ‘blacklisted’ have not been so informed. They will only realise that they are prohibited from travelling, when they are so informed by the Immigration Officers at the Airport. Therefore, not only are they being denied their constitutional rights but they will also be made to suffer the public humiliation, pecuniary loss and tremendous inconvenience that will ensue when they turn up at the Airport, prepared to leave Guyana. Even their parliamentary representative is denied this information. If this is not authoritarianism, the transitioning into a Police State and the most callous abuse of power, then I do not know what is.
One other issue is troubling me. The Police Commissioner in his letter to the Bishop professes to be acting upon the advice of the Police Legal Advisor. I know that the holder of that office knows better. That is what makes this fiasco even more eerie. Lastly, I offer my services free of charge to any person who is unconstitutionally prevented from leaving the country in these circumstances.