By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” June 25, 2021)
Democracy is often snuffed out in the dark. In SVG, those sworn to function under the colour of law are making a run for it in broad daylight. Question or challenge their authority and expect to be met with heat rather than light. Democracy is given a warning to depart. We drop our guard to our peril.
With all that we are going through, officialdom stubbornly refuses to dialogue with the people. We live in an Orwellian world where everything means its opposite. The government’s credibility is waning fast. If it says run, the majority of the population will stand.
To win the support of the populace, you have to be transparent. To be credited with a sound policy, you have to be consistent. You cannot hide data today and stoke them tomorrow. You cannot meet people’s concerns, queries and disbelief with arrogance and bullying. You cannot threaten to unleash your security force on the nation. Worse, your special police units will cost you goodwill in the towns and villages across the country if they act as an occupying force, guns on the ready to shoot or maim anyone who may not march on orders.
If you question the preceding narrative, you either don’t live in SVG, too stuffed with partisan politics or, like Rip Van Winkle, havr fallen into a deep sleep. Whatever the reason, the times demand that you arise from your slumber.
For starters, the Ministry of Health new bullying policy is that all Covid-19 unvaccinated staff must present a negative Covid-19 test every two weeks. The staff member must pay for the test. Clear proof of government’s “voluntary vaccination policy”.
Recently, a young man related the sad tale of being arrested, taken to a police station where he spent about four hours and then taken to Fenton mountain and shot in the leg. His left leg is plastered from his ankle to above his knee. The police did not charge him. Three weeks ago, some young women took to the media to complain of a beating they suffered at the hands of police officers. Last Tuesday, a mother engaged us to represent her son, who was stopped and shot on the beach at Rabacca. He, too, bears the evidence of two shots in his right knee and one in his left calf.
There are several active-duty police officers with two or three dead bodies under their belt. No reckoning, no repercussions forthcoming. As Prime Minister Gonsalves said, “Compared to other officers across the region, our police are angels.” You cannot ask for a clearer green light to act with impunity brutalising and shooting civilians.
Don’t believe it? Ask how many coroner’s inquests are outstanding? Investigate the last time a coroner’s inquest was completed into the death of a civilian killed by those sworn to protect and serve? Chew on this for context. In 2012, Otneil Whyte, a customs guard, was killed in a mysterious “soap powder” shootout on Union island. A coroner’s inquest was convened in 2014 and subsequently adjourned indefinitely. Reason: Venezuelan nationals involved in a shootout with police were released and returned home without charge.
There are extrajudicial killings in SVG. Those carrying a heavy-laden brief for the government may raise a hue and a cry, long on and short of enlightenment. The charge is irrefutable. Consider this fact. 1996 was the last year a Vincentian was legally executed by hanging. However, more citizens than we care to count have been shot and killed by police without an official investigation.
Then there is the horrid state of the criminal justice system. All too often, drugs, especially cocaine, go missing. Yet accused persons are convicted on made-up evidence. An accused is arrest for possession of four kilos of cocaine. The cocaine is wrapped in white plastic and numbered 1 to 4 for identification. At trial, there is one white package and three black, clearly not the same contraband. Yet, the tainted drugs are accepted as evidence sufficient for a conviction.
Evidently, a corrupted officer stole the drugs. But there is no news of officers being dismissed, tried or convicted. They are shifted around.
The criminal court is swiftly morphing into a legal conveyor belt rather than a hall of justice. Recently a young man charged with the serious crime of robbery was made to conduct his own trial, even after he informed the court that he had found an attorney willing to assist with his defence. Statements coerced from accused persons are entered into evidence even where their request for legal representation is ignored. A prosecution main witness declared in open court that the prosecution warned him to tell the story as they directed. Yet, the evidence is taken and leads to a conviction.
Added to all this, the ongoing saga of prominent officials in the legislature and judiciary accused of beating, shooting and threatening a citizen. There is a glaring double standard. Nine weeks after, the investigation snails along with no end in sight. Imagine further the disclosure that a potential witness was asked to sign a false statement implicating the complainant. Compounding this is the fact that there has been no obstruction of justice charges lodged against the culprit.
But there is more: the civil law division is no better. On Tuesday, lawyers had to scramble to get a judge to prevent the government from deporting a British national without hearing her appeal, which the Immigration law allows.
Declarations and other orders of the law courts are routinely disregarded. One cost order is so woefully and egregiously neglected that the interest on the order has run past EC$500,000. Last week, the Court of Appeal handed the government another defeat. The government’s attempt to dismiss a case where police wrongfully shot an innocent citizen was set aside.
Democracy dies in the dark. We, the people, have to hold high the lighted torch.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].