Prosecution or persecution?

Last Monday, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard discontinued the charges against former prime minister Basdeo Panday, his wife, Oma, former minister in the Panday administration Carlos John, and businessman Ishwar Galbaransingh in the alleged corruption case called Piarco 3.

After 18 years, this preliminary inquiry had first remained partheard as the magistrate hearing the case retired after ten years and then it was then listed to restart afresh before a new magistrate after a four-year hiatus.

Before that process could properly get underway, the State threw in the towel and discontinued the charges.

This has become part of a particular trend in respect of high-profile cases that involve allegations against UNC politicians and people associated with them or even innocently dragged into their political sphere by unfounded allegations.

For Basdeo Panday, it represented the completion of a twodecade-old process that included (i) being charged during the 2002 general election campaign and his faulty conviction by Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicholls for corruption in 2006 when the magistrate himself was corrupt and compromised as confirmed by the Privy Council in June 2022, (ii) his failed retrial after a successful appeal that saw him being released in 2012 because Magistrate Marcia Murray was satisfied that the charges against him may have been politically motivated, and now, (iii) this collapsed case that has ended in embarrassment for the State because of their failure to prosecute after nearly two decades.

Part of that trail of failed prosecutions that never got off the ground after several years involved Finbar Gangar, former energy minister in the Panday administration, who was discharged by Magistrate Christine Charles in May 2016.

He had initially been charged in 2004. After 12 years, the State admitted that they could offer no evidence against Gangar on charges that he had failed to declare some of his bank accounts to the Integrity Commission.

Another failed prosecution related to the charges laid against the late chief justice Satnarine Sharma, who was accused by Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicholls of attempting to sway him to give a favourable decision in favour of Basdeo Panday in his 2006 corruption case. After giving statements to the prosecution which led to Sharma being charged, when the time came to lead the evidence against him in court, Mc Nicholls refused to do so and the prosecution discontinued its case.

Senior Magistrate Lianne Lee Kim discharged the chief justice because the prosecution admitted it could offer no evidence against him.

There was subsequently an attempt to impeach Chief Justice Sharma with Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicholls giving evidence against him before the Mustill Tribunal.

However, the Tribunal concluded that the matter did not merit being referred to the Privy Council to consider the removal of the Chief Justice in December 2007 and he retired in January 2008.

In May 2019, former attorney general Anand Ramlogan and attorney Gerald Ramdeen were charged with corruption based on statements made by Vincent Nelson, KC against them.

However, in October 2022, DPP Gaspard discontinued the proceedings against them both because of the unwillingness of the star witness, Nelson, to testify against them. Once again, a complainant who had been the core of a case against high-profile individuals declined to testify.

All of this, inclusive of last Monday’s discontinuation of the Piarco 3 case, begs the question of whether or not the effect of all of these failed prosecutions does not amount to persecution.

Between star witnesses giving statements to prosecutors and then refusing to testify, on the one hand, and prosecutors admitting that they could not offer any evidence against the accused, on the other hand, there is good reason to believe that all of these amount to persecution.

The use of the prosecutorial powers of the State to lay so many charges over the years against people who could be regarded as political opponents of the PNM does provide a moment of pause.

The Opposition UNC has formed the view that the purpose of this trail of failed prosecutions was to provide political talking points in successive general elections for the benefit of the PNM as opposed to pursuing real justice.

With the exception of the 2010 general election in which powerful forces inside the PNM wanted to remove Patrick Manning, the 2002, 2007, 2015 and 2020 general elections saw the corruption narrative that was linked to these ongoing prosecutions benefit the PNM electorally.

Prof Hamid Ghany is Professor of Constitutional Affairs and Parliamentary Studies of The University of the West Indies (UWI). He was also appointed an Honorary Professor of The UWI upon his retirement in October 2021. He continues his research and publications and also does some teaching at The UWI.

The Opposition UNC has formed the view that the purpose of this trail of failed prosecutions was to provide political talking points in successive general elections for the benefit of the PNM as opposed to pursuing real justice.

Prof Hamid Ghany