vendredi 16 novembre 2007

Human Rights in Seychelles : October 2006 Police Repression and the Judge Reilly 2007 Inquiry and Report.

Call for Radio Freedom
During the mid morning of 3rd October 2006, a group of supporters of the political opposition, Seychelles National Party (SNP) gathered before the Seychelles’ National Library building, in which premises the Seychelles National Assembly was debating an amendment to the local telecommunications and broadcasting legislation. The substance of the amendment was, in essence, to make it illegal for a political party to have its own broadcasting station.

This legislative debate was taking place in the context of the SNP disputing the independence of the national broadcasting agency, the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) and allegedly in the process of finalising its plans to apply for a broadcasting licence.

The fairness and freedom from bias of the SBC in presenting the views of all parties on national issues, particularly those of political controversy, have persistently been a matter of partisan debate since the early 1990s.

The gathering had been planned beforehand by the SNP, to essentially petition the President of the country not to assent to the proposed amendment under debate. The latter debate appeared as a perfunctory exercise as the amendment had been tabled by the ruling party which enjoyed a comfortable majority in the National Assembly.

The local Police Force had come to know of the planned gathering, interpreted it as illegal and had mobilised the riot police Special Service Unit (SSU)

Violent repression by the Police

In summary, at around 1000hrs, when some 50 to 100 persons had gathered, the Police requested that they disperse. The crowd called to be addressed by their Leaders.

Mr Wavel Ramkalawan, the SNP leader (also Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly) came out from the debate and engaged discussions with the regular police on site and with the assembled crowd.

The SSU intervened and made to ‘arrest’ Mr Jean François Ferrari, an executive of the SNP leadership. They apparently only managed to beat him up severely and leave him unattended and under no restraint while they sought out others of the SNP leadership.

The Leader of the Opposition was severely assaulted. Others, some innocent bystanders were assaulted, including 63-year old, physically (medically) impaired Gilbert Elisa.

No assistance was provided to the injured. Mr Ferarri and Mr Ramkalawan who, though under arrest, were transported, as were others, by their peers to the Victoria hospital for treatment.

Government disinformation

The country was shocked at the unprecedented display of intransigent and cheap violence. The government-controlled daily newspaper, Nation, in its issue of 6th October, published a police communiqué which made several claims:

1 While many of the incidences of violence that occurred following this assembly are under investigation, the need to clarify certain events has been highlighted by the misrepresentation of facts in certain press releases emanating from the Seychelles National Party (SNP)

2. Police Officers were following procedures for the search of all persons entering the building which houses the National Assembly to ensure security

3. At 1005hrs the Leader of the Opposition left the National Assembly debate and joined supporters that had grouped outside

4. SSU (Special Support Unit) officers were engaged in containing the crowd at outside the building.

5. An altercation developed between Mr Jean-Francois Ferrari, an SNP executive member, one of Mr. Ramkalawan’s bodyguards, and SSU police officers during which force was used against the SSU. As a result of this altercation, two SSU officers were injured as well as Mr. Ferrari.

6. Mr. Ramkalawan was at this point engaged in conversation with a member of the regular Police at the entrance to the building. As Mr. Ferrari was being arrested, Mr. Ramkalawan punched one of the SSU officers

7. The situation then degenerated into a melee where several people were injured including Mr. Ramkalawan. Mr. Ramkalawan and Mr. Ferrari and a few other people had to be taken to Victoria Hospital for treatment at 1015hrs

8. Investigations continue into the damages caused to property in the town

On the 10th October 2006 the Nation reported that ‘the President was ‘satisfied that preliminary investigations had shown that the Police had acted correctly and professionally in the handling of (last Tuesday's) incident

The president further expressed the wish that ‘the opposition (renounced) violence publicly since only the highest regard for law and order could guarantee the peace and stability that the people of Seychelles need to progress’

The stage was thus set. As the independent inquiry will later show, local public opinion was, as is customary, being deliberately prepared to accept that on the one hand, the political opposition is bunch of anarchists bent on causing trouble and on the other, that the police is a professional law abiding force concerned only with the upkeep of law and order.

Reaction of the Political Opposition and Independent Inquiry

The political opposition weekly Regar, in its issue of 13th October, publicly called the Police Commissioner a liar in both making false accusations against the SNP and persons affiliated to the SNP and in misrepresentation of the facts.

Possibly pressured to save the image of the regime, the President ordered a special inquiry into the incident of 3rd October with a commitment to making public its report.

A judge (retired) from Ireland, Michael Reilly, was appointed to conduct an independent inquiry. The inquiry was duly conducted from January 2007 and the Reilly Report was submitted in October 2007 and made public early November 2007.

The Inquiry Report

I have had a rapid scan through the Judge Reilly Report and I do believe it vindicates the Seychelles Political Opposition

The report seems to highlight a lot of what I have suspected and said all along to any who would care to listen or read, about the partisan-charged bias of my country’s law enforcement and general public service management

If I have a lot of respect for the integrity and professionalism of some individuals within the state apparatus, I must also recognise that they all seem to be imbued with the pervading partisan bias of the ruling party which renders everyone impotent to stand up and speak out against flagrant disregard to both the constitution of the third republic and in particular to respect of our (human) rights as well as to the recurring failure of the national police force to provide professional policing.

While the Judge Reilly Report acknowledges under chapter 8, that on the 3.10.2006, the SNP did indeed act contrary to the stipulations of the local Public Order Act as it stood then, it may, and probably will, be viewed as overly critical of Government and is ‘sans apel’ on police incompetence across the hierarchy.

The SSU actions unprovoked, unwarranted, unnecessary.
Police Commissioner lied.

Under chapter 7, it rewrites the factual , chronological account of the incident on that inauspicious day, thereby establishing that the Police Commissioner did indeed lie in his communiqué of 6th October 2006.

Section 7.27 established that SSU officers beat and injured people who were vulnerable and attempting to leave the area and that (the) attacks were unprovoked, unnecessary and unwarranted. No police officer has taken responsibility for these actions, and no attempt has been made by the police at a senior level to establish who was responsible for these actions.

Section 7.28 pointed out that the fact that no police officers have been disciplined for their actions (….) and, indeed, no investigation into the actions of the police on that day has been carried out encourages the view that members of the Police Forces can behave improperly and not be held to account for that behaviour.

The Police: unprofessional, excessive and unjustified use of force

Chapter 9 of the report emphatically refutes the presidential satisfaction expressed through the Nation of 10th October 2006, of professionalism of the police action and exposes as, at best, gross misinformation, the Police Communique published in the Nation of 6th October

Indeed, section 9.7 clearly establishes an excessive and unjustified use of force by the SSU and under section 9.8, the report calls for the scraping of that unit altogether from under the Police and for public order policing functions to be exercised by the regular police with all police officers receiving appropriate training for policing public events with an emphasis on negotiations, the implementation of a graduated response, and a particular focus on respect for human rights

Police Commissioner and Senior Management Team: Incompetent

Section 9.14 of the report is an unambiguous recognition of Police incompetence, and for the Police Commissioner and his senior management team, it is a list of their personal and combined failures. ‘..evidence adduced at the Inquiry points to a number of critical failures on the part of the Commissioner to deliver a proper policing service on the day’ failures which the report concludes, ‘are endemic defects in the (Seychelles) Police Force.’

Section 9.14 goes further to list the minimum skills and experience requirements for the Police Commissioner and his senior Management team and pointedly spells out that they should have no political affiliation other than exercising normal political franchise. It goes on to make the crowning humiliating list of key competency fields that the Police Commissioner should have.

In the ensuing chapters it clearly calls for the independence of the SBC and for a greater respect of human rights.

The pervasive police incompetence we have known since June 1977

Judge Michael Reilly comes from a democratic country with a history of accountable and professional policing. It is to his credit that, in judging the local policing structure and conditions for respect of human rights, he seems to make allowances for the local system’s comparative inadequacies. He does not seem to be judging our local system on the basis of what takes place in his country.

Be that as it may. He was judging an incident, which occurred within a few hours, one day in October 2006 and concluded that on that day, the Police failed the nation it is supposed to ‘serve without favour, malice or ill will’ when its SSU officers launched ‘unprovoked, unnecessary and unwarranted attacks’ against a peaceful gathering and ‘beat and injured people who were vulnerable and attempting to leave the area’.

What Judge Reilly may not be aware of is that the country has, since 1977, been exposed to the pervasive incompetence and ineffectual policing of its boys in blue and others, armed, in khaki..

The SSU that Judge Reilly condemns in his report, we as a people, have been condemning for the past 30 years as ‘Gard Baté’ under its various guises .

In any open and democratic society, the Police Officer who carries out unwarranted assaults on unarmed and peaceful citizens must bear the criminal responsibility for his actions.

In our country, notwithstanding that no responsibility is ever borne, it is one that is also shared with the system which, since the violent coup d’etat of 1977, ushered in a mentality of violent repression of political dissent.

The SSU and its precursors, all partisans of the ruling party, became our local ‘tonton macoutes’, intimidators ready to wade into any crowd of suspected political opposition and to indiscriminately dispense violent repression, certain in the knowledge that none of them would ever be held accountable, once it is established that their actions was to quell political dissent. To object or in any other way, express opposition to the policies and practices of the Seychelles Government since 1977, is to invite on your head the full wrath of 'the people' through its police or army.

The hallmark of the regime then, and to a large extent, now, is to instil fear and acquiescence in a peaceful nation. Professional policing does not seem to have ever been of particular concern.

Career policemen have been routinely pushed aside to allow those with less qualifications and experience into the top leadership slots. Just a few months ago, the whole police leadership, including Officers with long years of service, proven qualifications and competence, was sacked by a Police Commissioner who felt that his senior officers were not competent!!.

The sacked officers pressed charges for unlawful dismissal and were vindicated in court. In time, the Police Commissioner, Andre Kilindo, whose qualification for appointment into the post seemed to have had more to do with his political affiliation than to policing qualification or experience, was given the golden handshake. He was replaced, in August 2006, by the current Commissioner who was a senior officer in the army, also affiliated to the ruling party and whom the Judge Reilly report now finds is totally unfit for the job through sheer incompetence and lack of qualification.

The army was routinely called in to euphemistically ‘assist’ the regular police in basic duties such as search and arrest of wanted felons or criminal suspects. Rules of engagement seemed to be ill-defined. Armed police personnel, in or out of uniform, often make use of their arms to intimidate unarmed, peaceful citizens. During the period 2004 to 2007, there were at least seven reports of police officers making use of their weapons in the pursuit and arrest of suspected felons or escaped prisoners, at Cote d'or Praslin, Curio Road, Les Mamelles and Port Glaud, resulting in six grievous bodily harm and one fatality. The latter case occurred in the evening at Port Glaud in proximity to the residence of one Robyn Henriette, principal suspect in a break-in which occurred at the Ste Anne Island resort late 2004 or early 2005. The Police was ostensibly trying to arrest the man.

There has not been any serious investigation into any of these incidents. Not many had the gumption to stand up and demand the right to due process under the law, even for convicted criminals. Those who did speak out for respect of human rights, democracy and police accountability were publicly tagged as pursuing a warped political agenda or merely seeking to score cheap political points, in favouring the criminals.

The pervading feeling has been that, the police officer, or soldier, is absolved of all blame and responsibility for any action, however unwarranted and illegal it may be, if it was executed in accordance to the tacit or implicit wishes of the authorities.

And to crop it all, within a few days of the violent, unwarranted police action of 3rd October 2006 against peaceful, unarmed citizens, the authorities publicly thanked the incompetent but totally loyal officers, in recognition of their ‘professional competence’. A number of them, was promoted, amongst whom the most notoriously incompetent Police Officer, chief of the ‘Gard Baté’ (SSU), promoted from Superintendent to Chief Superintendent. The very same officer who was found guilty by the courts for unwarranted assault in 2003 on a citizen, brave enough to press charges. The very same who epitomises political partisanship and police brutality on our peaceful shores

The promotion in itself was a clear demonstration, if ever any was needed, of how career advancement in the Police depends more on blind political loyalty rather than proven competence in effective policing

In so far as these, among other positions vindicate the SNP’s claims of pervading political bias and unfairness of the local set-up, the Judge Reilly Report will therefore probably add to the local apathy when it joins other reports, unattended, gathering dust and forgotten, because it simply spells out to Government what most free-thinkers have been observing and saying over the past 15 years :

That the full and unconditional respect of democratic principles, and the rule of law, must be ensured for the government to deserve the democratic label.

That the national police force is incompetent, from its head right down to the cop on the beat, largely due to a combination of political bias, improper training and lack of qualifications.

That respect of human rights in the country, if enshrined in the constitution of the third republic of 1993, is too often left at the whims of those who yield undisputed power in the land.

That there is a pervasive partisan-inspired mistrust between politicians on both sides of the local scene that, too often, are tacitly encouraged to degenerate into petty violence and occasionally influence decisions that threaten national peace and stability.

That the ruling party and incumbent government persistently fail to come to terms with these painful, everyday realities that so plague our land and remain the cause of so much unnecessary suffering and pain.

Will We Ever Wake Up And Take Heed ?

While this is to be hoped for, it is not unreasonable to expect it will not happen. Notwithstanding, I have taken due note of what may be a glimmer of hope in the long-suffering history of political bias in our land.

The President and the Leader of the Opposition have, this month started what may be a series of official consultations. Seeing that they both desire democracy to flourish in our land, maybe they will see the wisdom in seeking a way to work together, without compromising their respective political agendas, for the benefit of our motherland.

This said, maybe it is too much to hope for, too soon. But the least that should happen is for the Police Commissioner to resign, as any self self-respecting person in his position should, though he is not solely to blame to find himself unqualified, incompetent and inexperienced and in a highly sensitive and demanding position.