raffique shah

IF the arrest of ex-minister Marlene McDonald, and her indictment on fraud and misbehaviour in public office charges did anything for the morale of citizens, it was to restore confidence in some investigative units of the Police Service, and underscore the independence of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Before a battery of lawyers, other judicial officers and supporters of the People’s National Movement swoop down on me for seemingly violating the legal principle of presumption of innocence until otherwise proven, let me assure them that I am fully conversant with the law, and I am not suggesting that Marlene is guilty of any of the charges she faces. In fact, I empathised with her when I learned of her health woes and the extended detention she endured before she was allowed bail. And as she herself said, she will have her day in court. “I will be vindicated,” she added.

For her sake, I hope so.

What I’m focusing on is the fact that in this matter the police and the DPP have effectively dealt with the perception that politicians and other holders of high office are beyond the reach of the law. When, a few months ago, attorney general under the People’s Partnership government, Anand Ramlogan, and UNC senator Gerald Ramdeen were arrested, interrogated and charged with fraud-related offences, talk on the street and on social media was that they were targeted because they belonged to the opposition United National Congress.

Well, Marlene’s arrest has put paid to such notion, she being a senior PNM official and minister at the time of her arrest. The police and the DPP are saying: you do the crime, you face the music, and maybe you do the time—whatever political party you belong to, however high the office you hold or held. Which is how justice should be dispensed and how the law should be applied.

Bearing in mind some of the offences Marlene has been charged with date back to more than a decade, legitimate concerns can be raised over the sluggish pace of investigations. It cannot be that police officers are deliberately dragging their feet on scores if not hundreds of allegations of corruption. It must be that the information they need to build a case that warrants charges is difficult to access on a timely basis, or they suffer with manpower shortages that frustrate them. Whatever the impediments, they need to be rectified.

Let’s throw our minds back to the close-to-23-years-old Piarco Airport corruption charges against several ex-ministers, party financiers and businessmen. I believe the matter is in the closing stages of the preliminary inquiry, whereupon the magistrate will decide whether or not any or all of the accused will stand trial before a high court judge, which could take another ten or 15 years.

By then, many of the police investigators will have retired, and the accused, who were not young men when they allegedly committed the offences, might pass on to the Great Beyond. If that happens, and I’m not wishing it on them, they would never have had the opportunity to clear their names or do the time.

Either way, justice will not have prevailed. Marlene and Anand have just joined the queue, along with a few lesser-known businessmen and public officials. How long they will remain in the purgatory of being on remand is uncertain. Luckily for all the so-called white collar crime accused, they are out on bail, carrying on with their lives as normally as is possible with such clouds hanging over them.

Spare a thought for scores of innocent prisoners who are rotting in jail as they await trial because their charges are non-bailable, or worse, their families cannot afford to secure bail. Note well I specified innocent prisoners.

In a related issue, I did a double-take last week when I heard Minister Fitzgerald Hinds express surprise over extortion rackets that are rampant in certain crime-infested communities. He was speaking in Parliament—maybe it was a re-run of a debate on one of the new anti-crime Bills. I was shocked that he was surprised because Mafia-style extortion, namely gangsters demanding “protection” money from contractors and/or business operators in much of the East-West Corridor is virtually factored into their bids or cost of doing business.

I have written about it before. I have several friends, mostly small contractors, who have for many years been victims of the racket. It’s simple “subtract-math” (or add-math, depending on one’s perspective: you get a small contract from, say, WASA, to effect repairs and restoration in any such district, and even before you mobilise manpower and equipment, you are approached by the gang leaders who demand up-front payment and jobs for their members who will not work.

Take it or leave it—no negotiations! You resist or make reports to the police, you will never be allowed to work there, you may be killed, or you fold up and get out of business. Such extortion now extends to weekly “taxes” on small businesses ranging from your once-friendly neighbourhood “mini-mart” or grocery to small restaurants. Note, these heartless criminals target almost exclusively small businesses, never the big establishments that can afford firepower as defence.

I, who do not traverse or live in a high-risk area (my wife and I were robbed at gunpoint back in 2002) know of these criminal activities, so I was surprised that Mr Hinds was surprised.

The phenomenon of the “box-drains millionaires”, which spread like a virulent cancer during the People’s Partnership term of office, was similar, though not identical.

Party hacks and their musclemen who knew little or nothing about mixing concrete, far less gradient of drainage systems, were awarded lucrative contracts, with kickbacks to senior officials factored in.

They became millionaires, box-drains criss-cross the country, many of them flowing in the wrong directions, and the flooding continues…

In the overall scheme of corruption, in this country where billions of dollars disappear into private hands and accounts every year, Marlene may well be the least of the looters—if she is found guilty.

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