Controversial SARA Bill passed by Govt majority

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-Opposition MP’s stage walkout, expected to mount legal challenge

The State Assets Recovery Bill 2017 was passed after a tumultuous debate in the National Assembly on Thursday evening, but the Opposition has made it clear that the Government can expect legal challenges to the Bill from the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and possibly from civil society.

Minister of Public Telecommunications, Cathy Hughes

Contention arose in the National Assembly after Government Members of Parliament and Minister of Public Telecommunications, Cathy Hughes, contended that the bill speaks of civil proceedings against those in wrongful possession of state assets. She stressed that “no one would be arrested.”

But according to Opposition MP Juan Edghill, the Bill clearly indicates that power is conferred on the Director of the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) to decide what kind of proceedings will be initiated against suspects.

Opposition MP Juan Edghill

Indeed, a perusal of part two, section seven (three) of the bill reads that: “In discharging the functions of SARA, the Director shall consider whether the recovery of State property may be better secured by means of criminal investigations and criminal proceedings.”

The bill goes on to state: “the Director shall decide which particular operations are to be mounted by SARA, and how those operations are to be conducted.”

Edghill argued that many of the Bill’s core functions are already provided for in the laws of Guyana. He expressed concern that the bill in fact confers on the Director extra powers that supersede the powers of other heads of agencies.

Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman said Government’s implementation of the Bill was just in keeping with the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). Trotman lambasted the Opposition for not implementing such measures to recover state assets.

But Edghill said Government was not really serious about going after corruption in a unilateral way. He observed that many of the UNCAC’s provisions — such as those to oversee campaign financing — have been completely ignored by the coalition. Edghill also observed that the foremost persons within the State Assets Recovery Unit (SARU) are all people known for their strong political views and their activism against the PPP. He referred here to SARU head, Dr Clive Thomas, and SARU executive Eric Phillips, against whom the PPP filed a police complaint as recently as last month for perceived threats against party officials and against Leader of the Opposition, Dr Bharrat Jagdeo.

The Opposition’s pleadings for the Bill to be sent to a Parliamentary Special Select Committee for a review were ignored, and upon Trotman moving a motion to adjourn proceedings immediately after Edghill’s 30-minute presentation, there were loud cries of dissent.

Opposition MP’s walked out in protest of Govt’s move

When the Government side used its majority to pass the Bill, the Opposition members promptly staged a walk out of the National Assembly. At an impromptu press conference held outside the Chamber, top PPP officials backed Edghill as he decried the hasty passage of the Bill.

He referred to the Bill as an attempt to silence the Opposition, and observed that the motion to adjourn came just as salient points in the bill were being raised – points which he said were not even addressed by the architects of the Bill.

“We want to express our grave disappointment with the move by (Raphael) Trotman to use the Standing Orders that the question be put….What he essentially did was shut down the debate.

You would have noticed that we were starting to highlight and we were building a case to highlight the illegality, unconstitutionality, and every reason why this Bill does not just need to go to a Select Committee, it needs to be revamped,” Edghill explained.

“This is a mad haste to pass through the legislation, to empower a group of political activists to witch hunt their political opponents,” Edghill declared.

Former Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand, also pointed out that the speakers from the Government side came to the debate with prepared speeches and regurgitated aspects of the Bill.

Opposition MP Anil Nandlall noted that even before the Bill had reached the National Assembly, several important stakeholder organisations had expressed concerns about the Bill.

“Despite all the concerns that have been raised in and out of the Parliament, a democratic government which cares about its image would want to ensure it goes the extra mile so as to be able to educate the public and deal with the apprehensions of the public. And here you have it, the Government did exactly the opposite,” Nandlall said.

The former Attorney General made it clear that the party would be mounting a legal challenge against the Bill, regardless of whether members of civil society wished to do the same. (Reprinted: Guyana Times)

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