Since it came to power in May of 2015, Guyana’s multiparty coalition government has vowed to bring charges against former President Bharrat Jagdeo and other high ranking officials for their part in the alleged looting of the country land and other assets while the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) ran the country for 23 consecutive years from 1992.
Critics and a growing number of supporters have taken the administration of President David Granger to task for the apparent slow pace of prosecutions of former top officials who are known to possess an inexplicable amount of wealth, palatial homes and links to leading businesses given the fact that the coalition has been in power for close to two full years.
This week, police from a special anti graft taskforce, the Special Organized Crime Unit (SOCU), swooped down on the city office of Opposition Leader Jagdeo and arrested a large group of former cabinet members and other officials and hauled them off to police headquarters for questioning in relation to the alleged fraudulent conversion of state assets to their own use.
The group included former defense and cabinet secretary Roger Luncheon, ex natural resources minister Robert Persaud, Lisaveta Ramotar, the daughter of former head of state and immediate past president Donald Ramotar and a string of other officials. Chief state prosecutor Shalimar Alli Hack has also been ensnared in the investigations.
The first group was hauled off for questioning on Tuesday, while a second set including former army chief rear admiral Gary Best and ex labor minister N. K. Gopaul were scheduled to either voluntarily report to police Wednesday and beyond or be arrested
The stepped up level of investigations clearly represents bad news for the opposition and people linked to it as the coalition is expected to use its wafer thin but one-seat majority in parliament to this week ram through legislation legalizing another anti-graft unit-the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA).
Officials have already hired six private attorneys to prosecute cases linked to the theft of state assets, while it has also secured the services of a British forensic fraud investigator to help speed up the level of investigations.
In the case involving the coastal state lands at Sparandaam, five miles east of the city, the state is alleging that Jagdeo and his group severely undervalued and priced the prime lands, spent millions to remove a large radio and TV antenna, develop the land, put in a drainage system and utilities all with state money. This was about five years ago.
Some of the ex ministers had paid a mere $7,5000 for the land, far less than rates charged by the housing ministry to ordinary Guyanese applying for house levels and even cheaper than those offered to Guyanese re-migrants in land specially set aside for them.
Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan Wednesday said that public servants like military chief Best and those who were not in cabinet are unlikely to be charged as “they were legitimate buyers of land offered to them. They were not in cabinet when the decision was taken to appropriate the land, to commit fraud. I expect that the cabinet group is going to be charged very shortly as they made all the decisions.”
He said government had back in 2015 ordered 57 audits of state agencies and information from these are being used in some cases to take the matter to the stage of criminal charges.
“So this is not a witch hunt as the opposition is alleging. These investigations are based on audits, forensic audits.”
For his part, Jagdeo, says that the opposition has little doubt that they are being targeted for political reasons.
“This is a witch hunt. This is as clear as day,” he said as Roger Luncheon was being arrested with cameras rolling.