Ignoring an avalanche of concerns from a range of stakeholders, Government on Monday introduced the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) Bill in the National Assembly.
This legislation is meant to legitimise the operations of the Ministry of the Presidency Department – which is believed to be presently functioning unlawfully since there is no legal framework governing its operations.
According to the Attorney General and Legal Affairs Minister Basil Williams SC, the SARA Bill seeks to establish a State Assets Recovery Agency in consonance with the 2003 United Nations Convention Against Corruption.
Williams said SARA would be headed by a Director who shall be a corporation solely to recover through civil proceedings, State property unlawfully acquired by a public official or any other person, to provide for investigations leading to the granting by the High Court of Restraint and Civil Recovery Orders in respect of unlawfully acquired property, to engage in international cooperation in the recovery of stolen assets of States within the contemplation of the Act, and for related matters.
During the consultation phase of the draft legislation, many stakeholders objected to the Bill in its current form, particularly to the fact that the entity’s Director would be vested with ‘virtually unlimited authority, making him the most powerful man in the country second to the President.’
Former Attorney General and Member of Parliament (MP), Anil Nandlall had expressed concerns about this legislation setting the stage for the creation of a parallel justice system.
He noted too that the Bill would create an environment that encouraged the violation of individuals’ constitutional rights and undermine the rule of law, since it conferred powers ten times greater than those of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) on a sole individual – the Director of SARA – who currently is Professor Clive Thomas.
He observed too that the Bill would create a series of new offences, the SARA Director was vested with unparalleled powers to investigate the newly-created offences and persons could be rid of their properties without ever being charged with a crime.
He explained that the Bill redefined the term “unlawful”, diluting the seriousness of a “wrong” which could now warrant the seizure of one’s property.
Therefore, it becomes easier to commit an “unlawful act”, and in the process, one risks losing one’s property.
The Private Sector Commission (PSC) also spoke out against the SARA Bill, saying that it was not only dangerous and disingenuous in its current construct, but it has been found to be in violation of numerous sections of Guyana’s supreme law – the Constitution.
Moreover, the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) had raised concerns over the political imbalance of the Parliamentary Appointments Committee, which would be tasked with selecting the Director of SARA.
Concerns were also voiced by the President of the Guyana Bar Association (GBA), Gem Sandford-Johnson over the amount of power instilled in the Director and she recommended that a Board of Directors be installed to govern the agency.
SARA will be funded utilising monies seized as part of its operations and the proceeds of the sale of properties seized by the unit from persons believed to have acquired State property unlawfully.
According to the proposed legislation, there shall be established the recovery of State assets fund, for the purposes of receiving credit from civil recovery orders and payments made or debts recovered in relation to civil recovery orders made.
It stipulates too that there shall be deposited into the fund, 25 per cent of all monies derived from the enforcement of a recovery order; the proceeds of sale of property which is the subject of an order and any income derived from the investment of any amount standing to the credit of the fund.
One of the first orders of business when SARA gets its legal framework is to launch a number of investigations into the owners of the high-rise buildings across the country, with the aim of clamping down on tax evasion and money laundering.
According to media reports, Dr Thomas wants to ensure that the money used to construct the buildings was clean, the buildings are not being used as a conduit for corrupt activities, the owners are paying their taxes, and the land was lawfully obtained.
Dr Thomas contended that there was an underground economy in Guyana and Government was hell-bent on identifying the individuals involved.
Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo had warned that this move would drive away investors. He also questioned the rationale behind targeting only high-rise buildings.
“What’s the logic? Let’s assume you have one five-storey building and another person have 50 one-storey buildings… he’s going to map the one five-storey building and you’re subjected to investigation and another person has 50 properties around the city, but you won’t be going after that person. What’s the logic?” Jagdeo questioned.
Meanwhile, the other Bills which were introduced are the Civil Aviation Bill 2017 which makes provision for offences relating to the safety and security of passengers, aircraft and airports and for the regulation, control and early development of civil aviation in Guyana and related matters. The new Bill seeks to repeal and replace the Civil Aviation Act Chapter 53:01 and bring Guyana’s aviation law into conformity with primary legislation regulating civil aviation currently found in other parts of the world. It makes provisions for the enablement of the Chicago Convention and the Agreement establishing the Caribbean Aviation Safety and Security Oversight System.
The Deeds and Commercial Registries Authority (Amendment) Bill 2017 was also introduced. (Guyana Times)