Last Updated on Thursday, 5 May 2016, 14:45 by Denis Chabrol
The President of the Guyana Bar Association (GBA), Christopher Ram on Thursday lashed back at the Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into the deadly prison unrest, Retired Justice James Patterson, saying that he was largely responsible for suffocating due process.
The GBA withdrew its participation in the inquiry, prompting Patterson to describe Ram as childish and disrespectful.
But Ram said he decided to withdraw the association’s participation and walk out, as was reported here, in an effort to protect its integrity. “We could not however allow the Bar Association to be perceived as compromised or complicit in an exercise that paid little regard to basic standards of procedure and fairness in this matter. The Chairman, the only legal person on the Commission, cannot escape responsibility for these shortcomings that do a disservice to those who died, or were injured or otherwise affected by the events of March 3,” he said.
Seventeen prisoners were burnt to death during the worst prison riot at the Camp Street jail.
Following is the full text of the GBA President’s statement:
Two days after my withdrawal on Wednesday April 20, 2016 as representative of the Guyana Bar Association from the Commission of Inquiry into the events at the Georgetown Prisons, Mr. James Patterson, Chairman of the Commission issued a Press Statement. The statement was not merely critical of the conduct of Mr. Selwyn Pieters, attorney for the Prison Service, the Police and the Fire Service and of me but was replete with personal attacks and invectives. Since I only read about the statement in the press, I wrote to the Chairman on April 26 asking for a copy of the statement and for him to indicate to me from the detailed transcripts of the proceedings the instances where my conduct fell short of professional standards.
So far, Mr. Patterson has failed to respond to my request. Without engaging in any ad hominem accusations, I wish to clarify the position of the Guyana Bar Association on the decision to cease participation in the Commission.
After observing a number of weaknesses in the proceedings of the Commission days after it began taking evidence, the Bar Association on March 11, 2016, applied for and received standing from the Commission to appear before it. Some of the weaknesses were commencing public hearings without any adequate preparation, including placement of advertisements inviting witnesses; the absence of basic information gathering; the absence of Rules of Conduct; the non-appointment of a Commission Counsel; the selection of witnesses and the conflicts of interest among Commissioners.
In an effort to assist the Commission, the Bar Association soon thereafter provided the Commission with a copy of the Rules of the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry and other literature and authorities on Commissions of Inquiry, including the role and authority of the Chairman in a Commission of Inquiry.
A feature of these hearings is that while Counsel for the state authorities and state individuals were allowed unrestricted time to lead their witnesses, the Commissioners unilaterally applied a twenty-minute limit for cross-examination by other Counsel. This unreasonable restriction was aggravated by continual and specious interventions during cross examination.
The Counsel for the Bar Association and inmates expressed their dissatisfaction repeatedly but out of a public duty and an obligation to contribute to the search for the truth, continued their participation in the Inquiry. The situation became entirely intolerable while key witness Senior Superintendent of Prisons was being examined by opposing Counsel. While a further ten minutes was allowed by the Commissioners, this proved wholly inadequate and seriously prejudiced the fairness and impartiality of the Inquiry.
As a result, following consultations with Mr. Glenn Hanoman who regularly appeared at the hearings on behalf of the Bar Association, and with other attorneys at the Commission, it was agreed that the Association’s continuing participation in the Inquiry only served to give legitimacy to a seriously flawed process.
Attorneys were particularly struck by the repeated and ill-informed comment of one Commissioner that the Commission was not a court of law and the insistence for procedural proprieties was time consuming, unproductive and unnecessary. On the other hand, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Commission was more concerned about an artificially imposed deadline rather than a genuine pursuit of its Terms of Reference.
It is my contention that any Commission of Inquiry, and certainly one investigating the worst prison deaths in the history of any Commonwealth country, cannot be fettered in its search for the truth. Truth is often hidden and its discovery takes painstaking examination. Unless there is clear evidence of irrelevance, obstructionism or time wasting, Commissioners ought to carry out their duties diligently and fairly to all the parties with not even a semblance of injudiciousness, arbitrariness, capriciousness or ignorance of the relevant rules.
The attorneys representing the Bar Association did not take the decision to withdraw lightly and we remain committed to the cause of justice in this matter. We could not however allow the Bar Association to be perceived as compromised or complicit in an exercise that paid little regard to basic standards of procedure and fairness in this matter. The Chairman, the only legal person on the Commission, cannot escape responsibility for these shortcomings that do a disservice to those who died, or were injured or otherwise affected by the events of March 3.