Govt, opposition weigh in on proposed life sentence, hefty fines for election offences

Last Updated on Sunday, 14 November 2021, 17:07 by Denis Chabrol

The opposition Alliance For Change (AFC) and A New and United Guyana (ANUG) disagree with the GY$10 million fines and life imprisonment for a number of election offences but the government said attempts to cheat an election amount to toppling an elected government.

ANUG Chairman, Attorney-at-Law Timothy Jonas said the way the proposed amendments to the Representation of the People Act (RoPA) are crafted as strict liability offences rather than in a way that allows a court to determine whether accused persons have knowledge or intend to commit an offence. “There is nothing here that talks about knowingly or fraudulently or with knowledge. This is strict liability…That goes past draconian. That is representative of the culture in our society that makes us think that if we have a heavy hand we can stop crime,” he said.

Mr. Jonas instead recommended that there be fairness, transparency and simplicity. The ANUG Chairman, for his part, argued that the RoPA should be amended to allow for the posting of the statements of poll on GECOM’s website because over the decades the existing law has worked well. Under such a system, he said political parties, the media and the wider public would be able to see the “live” statements of poll on GECOM’s website. “That will diffuse any nonsensical attempts when it becomes more centralised and all the Statements of Poll go to one individual who can corrupt it, it makes his life much more difficult because, when he is going through his process in collating the Statements of Poll, the whole country knows the result already,” he said.

If the proposed amendments are passed, Leader of the AFC, Attorney-at-Law Khemraj Ramjattan said persons could be scared away from taking up the jobs leaving the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to hire persons of a lower calibre. “You’re going to have a crisis in your hands because, quite frankly, you don’t want to put ill-educated people there, you want people who understand  the English Language and can do the thing but not be mischievous and when they start getting at people, you are going to end up with people being there not worth being there and they could do the bidding of an executive branch,” he said. He feared that the PPP was seeking to manipulate the electoral machinery to its own advantage.

He contended that said several of the penalties are geared to attack the Chief Elections Officer, Presiding Officer by increasing penalties that are “totally out of modern reality” in contrast to sentences for election offences in sister Commonwealth and Caribbean countries. Mr. Ramjattan said that if some of the penalties are softened and amendments are made to include knowledge and intent, “obviously” he would be willing to support them.

But Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Anil Nandlall said Guyana has always had a history of election rigging by the People’s National Congress (PNC) for decades. “You can’t look in the Caribbean for comparison. You can’t look in the Commonwealth for comparison because you can’t find comparison rigging and fraud here in the Caribbean or in the Commonwealth of the magnitude and nature of the vulgarity that we saw here,” he said.

There have been widespread controversies about electoral fraud in St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Dominica.

Mr. Nandlall sought to justify jail terms ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment and fines of  up to GY$10 million, the offence amounts to a coup or denying the right of a duly elected party to take the seat of government. In such an instance, he said the penalty for treason is death. “That is analogous to a lawful government being overthrown by tyrants. That is the legal analogy that I want to draw. When the democratic will of the people is denied and those who are not elected are imposed, it is akin to a coup d’etat. When that happens, persons who commit those types of offences are charged with offences of treason and related offences,” he added.

According to the Attorney General, the law and punishment must serve as a deterrent for those who want to tinker with elections.

Touching on concerns about the introduction of strict liability offences, he said if a law is silent on intention, the Court is required to read intention into the law while in some instances the intent and the act “go together”. At the same time, Mr. Nandlall said in principle “I don ‘t have a problem” reflecting intent in  the proposed amendment to make the offence clear and easier for the arbiter. “I know that the law says you must always have intention and when it is absent in the expressed language, then one is free to infer it that it is a requirement,” said Mr. Nandlall, an Executive Committee member of the governing People’s Progressive Party (PPP).

The proposed amendments to the RoPA, he hoped, would not discourage quality persons from taking up election jobs with GECOM because they ought not to operate as if they have a “stake in the race” but are administering the process. “Though they are voters, their large roles are facilitators so it is my hope and expectation is that it will not have that effect,” he said.

The PPPC administration had promised to reform  Guyana’s electoral laws due to controversy over the declaration of results for Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica).