Last Updated on Thursday, 9 March 2017, 9:47 by Denis Chabrol
Former President, Bharrat Jagdeo on Tuesday said he invoked presidential immunity when he was questioned by investigators of the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) in connection with his acquisition of seaside house lots at Ogle-Sparendaam, East Coast Demerara (PradoVille 2) below market value.
“They asked me several questions relating to the Pradoville transaction and I made a short statement because they asked me questions in my official capacity and I have immunities on those and so I refused to answer those questions,” Jagdeo, who served as President from 1999 to 2011, told reporters shortly after spending less than two hours in custody.
Guyana’s constitutional provision on the immunity of current and former presidents states “The holder of the office of President shall not be personally answerable to any court for the performance of the
function of his or her office or for any act done in the performance of those functions and no proceedings whether
criminal or civil, shall be instituted against him or her in his or her personal capacity in respect thereof either during
his or her term of office or thereafter.”
Jagdeo said SOCU investigators’ questions centered on audit reports on the National Communications Network, National Industrial Commercial and Investments Limited (NICIL) and Pradoville.
The lands are parcels 238 to 247 Plantation Goedverwagting and parcels 173 to 196 Plantation Sparendaam, East Coast Demerara.
He said if investigators question former Presidents about their official decisions, that could have far reaching consequences for current and future ex presidents.
Jagdeo said on other matters, he said “I prefer not to make a statement at this time.”
The Opposition Leader expects that charges will be instituted against several persons, but vowed that “we’ll contest them in court.”
Other former People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government ministers and former and current top government officials were also Tuesday arrested and questioned by agents of the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) as part of a probe into almost identical offences.
They were all subsequently released and were not required to post bail.
They included former Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr. Roger Luncheon- who was arrested at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition on Church Street by SOCU agents -, Minister of Natural Resources Robert Persaud, General Manager of the Guyana Gold Board Lisaveta Ramotar, and former Company Secretary to the National Industrial Commercial and Investments Limited (NICIL) Marcia Nadir-Sharma.
SOCU agent , Superintendent Vieria told Luncheon that he was arresting him for “conspiracy to commit a felony to wit fraudulent misappropriation of State property related to Pradoville 2.” While leaving the Opposition Leader’s Office, he stated his “total innocence and unawareness and basis for this charge.”
While Ms. Ramotar and Persaud declined to speak with the media, Luncheon told reporters that he was questioned about matters related to Pradoville, NICIL, Guyana Water Incorporated and Guyana Power and Light “as far as they provided the services in Pradoville 2.” He said he gave a “pretty straightforward” signed statement and he did not believe there would be any grounds to charge him.
Also arrested were former Chairman of the Private Sector Commission (PSC), Ramesh Dookhoo and Ghansham Singh, the son of former Labour Minister Nankishore Gopaul.
Jagdeo was arrested by SOCU’s Head, Assistant Commissioner Sydney James, moments after Luncheon arrived at the Camp Street, Georgetown-based headquarters of that Guyana Police Force Unit. A SOCU agent told Luncheon that he was being arrested in connection with the offence of conspiracy to commit a felony to wit fraudulent misappropriation of State property.
Dookhoo acknowledged to reporters that he has a plot of land at Pradoville 2, but declined to answer specific questions such as the price he had paid and whether he believed he had obtained that real estate below market value. “I have nothing there. After the scandal started I just left it like that,” said Dookhoo, a business executive at a major private sector firm and one of Jagdeo’s nominee for the chairmanship of the Guyana Elections Commission. Dookhoo said he is eager to relinquish the land which was bushy had one house erected on it at the time of purchase. “I wish I could give up the piece of land. The amount of embarrassment I have suffered…I wish I could hand back the land and forget this unpleasant experience I have had,” he said.
Dookhoo also declined to speak about the process that he had used to acquire the plot of land and whether he had applied for the house lot there or he had been offered. “It is the same questions I had to answer in the form of a
statement to the police and the lawyer has advised me that he will make that statement,” he said. Dookhoo was told that he has to return to SOCU next week.
Dookhoo’s lawyer, Sanjeev Datadin, said his client was innocent of any accusations and reasoned that the prosecution would be hard-pressed to prove “very specific parameters” that members of the then PPP administration had intended to commit misfeasance and misconduct in public office. “The discussion about market value is not really an issue that goes towards that. There must be an intention and I am not certain how intention would be established in a case like this,” said Datadin in response to a question by Demerara Waves Online News.
Meanwhile, Jagdeo, who is General Secretary of the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP), and former President Donald Ramotar said the arrests signaled that the David Granger-led administration was becoming increasingly repressive.
“My daughter is now caught up in this. This is a total witch-hunt. This is an indication to the Guyanese people of what is to come. This government is degenerating very rapidly into a very dictatorial and repressive regime and the fact that they have arrested my daughter is a clear sign that these people are vindictive and will stop at nothing to drive fear in people’s minds,” said Ramotar.
Former President Ramotar rubbished suggestions that his daughter might have obtained a house lot preferentially. “I am telling you very clearly that she applied like anyone else and was given a house lot,” he said.
Jagdeo accused government of using SOCU, which was originally established to work alongside the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) , has failed to arrest drug lords but has been targeting the political directorate. “In two years of this government, they have not made single arrest of drug dealers of a major note to block the drug trafficking nor have they brought a case against anyone for smuggling a billion US (dollars) per annum out of the country,” he said. “I have no doubt that the staff in SOCU that they are tremendous pressure to come after political opponents of this government rather than to go after the people that they were set up to go after,” he said.
The Opposition Leader said government has been similarly using the politically appointed State Asset Recovery Unit of the Ministry of the Presidency to witch-hunt former PPP ministers and other then government appointees.
But, the Guyana government in a statement denied that SOCU is being used to target its opponents.
“The Government notes SOCU’s meticulous, fair and independent work in investigating this immensely serious matter relating to state assets and looks forward to a thorough and comprehensive investigation and for the law to take its course and justice to be served. The Government notes spurious allegations of political vendetta and harassment and dismisses same as SOCU is operating independently and without any interference or direction,” the administration said.
The Government says it reaffirms its stated position that “the assets of the state belong to the people of Guyana and under no circumstances will it condone or overlook any action which resulted in the improper, illegal or unjust distribution of same.”
Former Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee, former Minister of Education Priya Manickchand and other persons are due to be questioned by SOCU agents. Others who purchased lands there include Director of Public Prosecutions, Shalimar Hack; former President of the Caribbean Development Bank, Compton Bourne and former Guyana Defence Force Chief of Staff, Retired Rear Admiral Gary Best.
In a High Court case filed by former parliamentarian, Desmond Trotman and the Committee for the Defence of the Constitution Inc in September 2015, the court documents state that Manickchand and Persaud made hefty profits from sale of those lands and houses. On February 21, 2013, Manickchand sold her land, building and erections for GUY$100 million to David Narine and on August 23, 2012 Persaud sold his land, building and erections to LSR Inc for GUY$90 million.
In September 2010, parcels each measuring 0.3030 of an acre were sold to Robert Persaud, Shaik Baksh, Clement Rohee, Lisaveta Ramotar, Dr. Compton Bourne and Priya Manickchand for GUY$1,515,000. In the case of Jagdeo, he purchased 0.4603 of an acre for GUY$2,301,500 and 1.5 acres for GUY$7.5 million. Jennifer Westford bought 0.3186 of an acre for GUY$1,593,000 and G.Singh and wife paid GUY$1,502,000 for 0.3005 of an acre.
The applicants listed the following known supporters of the PPP and government employees who benefitted from “government’s largesse” : Andrew Ranji Bishop, Florrie Loretta Ramnauth ( Dr. Luncheon’s former common-law wife), Rajendra Singh (former Chief Executive Officer of the Guyana Sugar Corporation ), Safraz Khan, and Ramesh Dookhoo who each purchased 0.3005 of an acre for GUY$1,502,000. Others are George Hallaq and Nada Hallaq who paid GUY$5 million for 0.8422 of an acre, and Future Developers International(Guyana) Inc whose sole director is Dr. Rajendra Singh purchased 0.5534 of an acre for GUY$3 million.
Moeenul Hack and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Shalimar Hack paid GUY$1,488,744 for 0.2767 of an acre, and then Chief of staff of the Guyana Defence Force purchased 0.3005 of an acre for GUY$1,502,500.
In that court case, the applicants charged that then Finance Minister Ashni Singh “wrongfully and unlawfully” authorized the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited to take moneys collected by government corporations and other wholly owned government companies such as the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission, Guyana Forestry Commission and Guyana Oil Company to develop the lands at Sparendaam and Goedverwagting.
The applicants have also said those works included the construction of roads and drains, installation of water mains, electrical lines and the removal of a 300-feet tall tower owned by the National Communications Network from the lands and install them at Parfaite Harmonie, West Bank Demerara.