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Guyana govt convinced Suriname to continue search for missing fishermen; Greenidge, Jagdeo tangle on illegal activities by fishermen

Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan speaking on the opposition-sponsored motion on the piracy attack in Suriname.

Minister of State, Joseph Harmon Friday night disclosed that Suriname at one stage had decided to abandon the search for 16 fishermen, but only continued after Guyana had said that it would have continued to look for the piracy victims off the eastern coast of that former Dutch colony.

“During the course of the last week, the Surinamese gave the indication that they were going to call off the search and we insisted that if you call off the search, we would like to continue it because we will not be satisfied until we are able to account for those bodies. As a result of that, the Surinamese continued (the search) after Minister (of Public Security Khemraj) Ramjattan went there,” Harmon told the House.

He was at the time contributing to an opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP)-sponsored motion that essentially called for direct assistance to the largely Guyanese fisherfolk in Suriname and greater collaboration between the law enforcement agencies of  the neighbouring countries.

Though unanimously supported by government and opposition lawmakers, the non-binding motion did not require a vote for parliamentary approval.

Harmon disclosed that government representatives have been going to Suriname to “hammer out” security cooperation arrangements between the two countries.

Minister of State, Josephj Harmon contributing to the debate on piracy.

Locally, Harmon said patrols are deployed from Coast Guard bases at Morawhanna, Pomeroon, Fort Island, Georgetown and New Amsterdam and aircraft are used to conduct aerial reconnaissance by agencies of the anti-piracy task force. “When that aircraft goes out, it’s equipped with cameras, it’s equipped with personnel who can actually look and spot the vessels that are in the river and the sea and when they do that they relay back to their base and the positions and so are plotted,” he said. The task force is made up of the Guyana Defence Force, Guyana Police Force, Guyana Revenue Authority, Guyana Energy Agency and the Maritime Administration.

Opposition front-bencher, Gail Texeira, in whose name the motion was laid, said government was silent for almost two weeks after the April 27, 2018 incident. “The problem is that the Guyanese people were closed out,” she said. In clear reference to President David Granger’s description of the incident as a “massacre”, Teixeira urged government to “act as if it is a massacre”.

Ramjattan, who led a team of three senior police officers to Suriname to gather information from Surinamese officials and law enforcement agencies, assailed the PPP, saying the motion was a “crude naked piece politicking”. He rubbished the PPP’s claims that he did little or nothing. “I was on the ball all the time with the Surinamese Minister of Justice and the Commissioner of Police,” he said. He added that Guyana has committed to providing social, psychological and some financial support to the affected persons.

Ramjattan defended government’s record on dismantling piracy since the coalition came to power in May 2015. He noted that there were 10 reported incidents in 2011; 22 in 2012; eight in 2014; three in 2013; four in 2015; one in 2016; nine in 2017 and none in 2018.

Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo.

Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo called on government to lobby Suriname to licence Guyanese fishers to allow them to land their catch in Guyana, that reports of piracy by Guyanese fishers are treated properly by law enforcement authorities, guaranteeing confidentiality of information on piracy

During the last half hour of the debate, the House erupted into loud heckling across the aisle after  Jagdeo objected strongly to assertions by Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Greenidge’s assertion that some of the fishermen also engage in illegal activities.

Greenidge reasoned that the alleged involvement of some fisherfolk in illegal activities might be one of the reasons why they have over the years resisted the use of radio communication sets and the installation of transponders that would plot their locations at sea and also allow them to request emergency assistance.

“The very problem itself suggests that the problem is not only about legitimate fisheries exploitation and so we know why it is that some of them would not have wanted transponders put on their vessels because this is one way of tracking the fishing that is taking place, partly it maybe you don’t want other people to know your fishing grounds where you are at any particular point in time, but also if you are engaging in activities other than legitimate activities, you don’t want transponders,” Greenidge said.

However, Jagdeo slammed Greenidge, saying that appears to be “an all out assault” on people engaged in certain types of economic activities to earn a decent living. The Opposition Leader cited Junior Minister of Labour, Keith Scott labelling Amerindians as “avaricious” in seeking rights to additional lands, Agriculture Minister Noel Holder saying that some people may steal equipment at the Hope Canal sluice door, and rice farmers being described as wealthy. “I cannot allow that kind of characterisation of people who are trying to earn a living to go unquestioned here Mr. Speaker,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Greenidge

Earlier in the debate, the Public Security Minister  told the House that perhaps the Guyana government would have to purchase the transponders and radio communication sets for the fisherfolk in Suriname with an agreement that they pay back the GYD$100,000 each in installments. He noted that many of the fishers are not poor.

“We have to modernise our fishing fleet whether small boats or big boats, but they did not want to expend any monies- the boat owners- for those things,” he said. “These fishermen they indulge in a business that is very profitable,” he said, adding that the fishermen were not in favour of being armed with guns for fear that the pirates would target them even more.

Greenidge and Ramjattan did not spare any moment in accusing the PPP of trying to score political points through the motion, although the opposition lawmakers assured that their intention through the motion was aimed at finding common ground with the Guyana government to work together to bring relief to the fishers and ensure there is no repeat of such an incident regarded as the worst piracy incident in the Americas. “We ought to resist the temptation of making political capital out of people’s misfortunes,” remarked Greenidge, one of the most senior politicians on the government benches.

Greenidge’s accusation that PPP that Jagdeo and PPP front-bencher, Anil Nandlall journeyed to Suriname to encourage them to return and vote out the coalition government – “you went out there with the purpose of recruiting them instead of helping them”- did not go down well with the Opposition Leader.

Jagdeo said the records would show that during his visit to Suriname, he always pushed a nationalistic rather than partisan line on the April 27, 2018 piracy attack during his addresses to Guyanese who hail from different parts of Guyana, not only the PPP’s traditional stronghold of Berbice. “I said I am here not because of politics. On this issue we are united…We are not here to blame the government. In fact, we wanted to elevate the issue in our Parliament,” he said, adding that Guyanese must be represented anywhere around the world.

He reiterated his suggestion that Guyana should invoke the anti-terrorism act instead of the narrow confines of the anti-piracy act which might allow those charged in Guyana for offences in Suriname to challenge the jurisdiction.

The Opposition Leader said although the US$99 million worth of fish catch does not land in Guyana, piracy affects the financial situation of Guyanese in Suriname and Guyana because many of the fishermen send back cash to their families.