Former Speaker of the National Assembly, Ralph Ramkarran has disagreed with the decision by current Speaker, Dr Barton Scotland to disallow questions by People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Member of Parliament Anil Nandlall calling for the release of the names of some 70 prisoners who were pardoned by President David Granger.
Nandlall’s questions were submitted on May 24, 2016 and sought to elicit from Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan the names, addresses, offences committed and criminal records, length of sentences, process and criteria employed relating to prisoners pardoned by President Granger over the past year.
The questions also sought to ascertain how many persons who were granted pardons were subsequently charged with offences, the names of those persons and the offences for which they were charged.
However, Clerk of the National Assembly, Sherlock Isaacs on May 30, 2016, by way of letter, informed Nandlall that in accordance with Standing Order 20 (2), Dr Scotland opined that the questions were an abuse of the right of questioning and as such, they were disallowed.
The Speaker did not specify the reason for not allowing the questions.
Commenting on the controversy surrounding the disallowing of the questions, Ramkarran declared that Nandlall’s questions appeared “quite innocuous”, even if the information sought was a bit much.
Writing on his weekly blog, The Conversation Tree, Ramkarran said that while the Speaker was not required to, and did not give any reasons for his ruling, over the past 15 years, Speakers have sought to explain their rulings in order to demonstrate that their decisions were based on rational considerations. This effort was intended to limit allegations of bias.
He explained that the Standing Orders did not define what an abuse of the right to question is, but among the 15 rules stated, he singled out Standing Order 20(2) which states that, “If the Speaker is of the opinion that any Question of which a Member has given notice to the Clerk or which a Member has sought permission to ask without notice, is an abuse of the right of questioning or infringes any of the provisions of this or any other Standing Order, he or she may direct that it be printed or asked with such alterations as he or she may direct; or that the Member concerned be informed that the Question is inadmissible.
“The Speaker is, therefore, clearly seeing something that we are not. And the fact that he did not direct any alterations means that he felt that the questions were inadmissible in their entirety,” Ramkarran opined.
Ramkarran, who served as House Speaker for more than 10 years, said that these issues would never have arisen had President Granger released the names and other particulars of the persons whom he had pardoned in response to questions rightly posed to him.
Further, he stated that the decision was controversial because no criteria were announced, except that only non-violent offenders were pardoned.
“There is no doubt that the President has the power under Article 188 (1) of the Constitution to pardon prisoners. The exercise of that power is a commendable initiative and hardly likely to attract serious or sustained opposition in principle. But the public is entitled to know the criteria employed by the President, the names of the prisoners who have been released and the offences for which they have been charged. This is not and should not be treated as confidential information or state secrets,” Ramkarran argued in support of Nandlall’s questions.
He reminded that the President was accountable to the people of Guyana who elected him and who now employed him and his Government and paid their salaries.
“He and the Government work for us and act on our behalf. We, therefore, have a right to ask him and them reasonable questions relating to our business, namely, the basis on which they perform their duties on our behalf and they have a duty to answer us,” the Senior Counsel noted.
He reminded that the pardoning of prisoners was a very important matter, adding that the prevailing secrecy and lack of transparency offended basic democratic norms.
“The Guyanese people through their lawful representatives, Members of the National Assembly, are concerned. They sought but failed to elicit the information from the President. They resorted to the National Assembly. They failed there as well,” Ramkarran noted.
“Are we to understand that the President will now continue to pardon prisoners twice a year for as long as he holds office and refuse to account to the Guyanese people?” he asked.