It is with trepidation that I venture to write about an issue such as this, which invokes controversies from all sides. To deal with it realistically though, I have to reflect on another contentious aspect of our recent history, which continues to drive fear into the minds of a vast number of people. The results of the 1992 elections alone, ignoring all the other evidence, prove beyond any conceivable doubt that all prior elections in Guyana as an independent nation were rigged. The failure of the PNC to acknowledge that past, and its role in it, has left more than a lingering sense of suspicion in the minds of a large number of people. The suspicion is, that with the PNC once again in power, rigged elections are back on the agenda. Some PNC members, supporters and sympathisers don’t seem to understand this, or if they do, don’t care about it. Rigged elections in the past aggravated ethnic disharmony by creating the feeling in one section of the population that its vote was either being stolen or was worthless. Hence the controversy over employment practices at GECOM. I am not saying anything that is not widely known and accepted, although many would not wish to acknowledge it.
Guyana’s population has had decided preferences in terms of employment. We have always had African Guyanese tending towards employment in the state sector. In the private sector, they are mostly located in administration, rather than as entrepreneurs. Notwithstanding 28 years of PNC rule, during which African Guyanese were encouraged to go into business, followed by 23 years of PPP rule, during which Indian Guyanese were encouraged to seek employment in the state sector and particularly the security services, the essential employment preferences at the time of Independence has remained largely intact today. These employment preferences are rooted mainly in history.
I will stay away from the continuing controversies between the current and past Attorneys-General. To coin a phrase, when elephants rumble, it’s the insects in the grass who get trampled. I will likewise stay away from the merits or otherwise of the Chief Justice’s decision ordering the Minster of Legal Affairs to bring the Act into force. It is likely to be appealed and the Court of Appeal will decide. But why is the Judicial Review Act important to the public?
There is an area of law called ‘public law.’ While much law notionally exists for the protection of the public, ‘public law’ more directly protects the rights of the citizen in his or her relations with the state and public bodies or authorities by holding them to account. The instruments used by the courts in public law are of ancient origin, initially directed against the King, and are called writs of certiorari – to quash a decision, mandamus – to order something to be done, prohibition – to prohibit an act and the lesser known, quo warranto – challenging the right to hold an office. The writ of habeas corpus – ordering the production of a body, is linked to these. They are called ‘prerogative’ remedies issued by courts on the application of citizens for ‘judicial review’ to enforce their rights against the state or public authorities. Currently, these are the only remedies available in public law.
When I read the headlines in SN yesterday morning, ‘AFC says constitutional reform still a priority,’ I could not feel a sense of elation. Instead, I sunk into a dejected mood of déjà vu. The headline itself subtly editorialized that it was not impressed with the promise. It added to the main banner ‘though no progress over three years.’ I believe that the AFC earnestly wishes to have constitutional reform but is faced with implacable resistance in the form of inactivity by APNU.
But more importantly, constitutional reform for the AFC, as well as for APNU, whenever it desultorily renews its fading undertaking, no longer seems to mean what it promised in the coalition’s manifesto. By omitting to refer to the manifesto promises, it appears that constitutional reform is being treated as a box to tick before the next elections comes along. It can then boast of fulfilling its election promise.
The offence of misconduct in public office carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. It is what is known as a ‘common law’ offence and is triable on indictment. This means that it is is derived from judge-made law of England which Guyana has legally inherited. And it is triable by jury. The maximum penalty suggests that it is regarded as a very serious offence.
While the offence can be traced back to the 13th century, a definition, given by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield in the 1783 case of R v Rembridge emphasized its importance: “…. first that a man accepting an office of trust concerning the public, especially if attended with profit, is answerable criminally to the King for misbehavior in his office; …. Secondly, where there is a breach of trust, fraud or imposition in a matter concerning the public, though as between individuals it would be actionable, yet as between the King and the subject it is indictable. That such should be the rule is essential to the existence of the country.”
Tit for tat politics have arrived with a vengeance. The APNU+AFC police has charged PPP supporters and the PPP has struck back by charging APNU supporters. The charges against former members of the past PPP/C administration will be seen as a political vendetta and will kill any possibility of movement towards a political solution.
Reports broke on April 12 that former Minister of Finance and Chairman of NICIL, Ashni Singh, and former NICIL Head, Winston Brassington, were jointly charged in absentia by the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) with three counts of misconduct in public office between December 2008 and May 2011 contrary to the common law. They were charged for: firstly, having sold 4.7000 acres of Government owned land at Liliendaal to Scady Business Corporation for $150M when they knew that it was valued at $340M by Rodrigues Architects; secondly, having acted recklessly in selling to National Hardware Guyana Limited in December 2008 Government owned land at Turkeyen for $598,659,398M without procuring a valuation; and, thirdly, having sold 10.002 acres of land at Turkeyen to Multicinemas Guyana in May, 2011, for $185M without procuring a valuation.