Restriction on the Right to Assembly1511 09 Aug, 2012
Mr. Rohee: I recognise that it is 2.30 in the morning and I would not wish to burden the House with too lengthy a presentation. It is simply to say that a motion of this nature ought not to be won by numbers but by the force of arguments. I have sat and I have listened to the arguments on both side of the House in respect to this motion and the division is clear. What is also obvious is that the motion is likely to be carried because of mere numbers. There is a reality out there that the numbers cannot hide and that reality is that people in the wider society, apart from those who take a rather liberal approach to matters of public safety security, out there who look to the police to maintain the peace and good order in our country. It is this situation that the police force, at all times, has to balance and exercises judgement - how to balance the right of all sides; those who have the right to assemble peacefully and those who do not wish to be a part of any assemble; who wish to go about their business in a way without let or hindrance. It is the police in the final analysis who make that judgement call.
We cannot have it both ways, where on the one hand we wish to direct the police in their operations, what they should do and what they should not do, and on the other formulate a policy that conflicts with what resides solely within the bosom of the Guyana Police Force. There is no way, with due respect to this House and the powers and the authority that this House has within the meaning of the Standing Orders, that this House could direct the Guyana Police Force as to whether it could put up barriers or not put up barriers. I think, with due respect, this is going beyond the bale. Even the Minister of Home Affairs does not have the authority to direct the police as to where a barrier should go, where a rank should stand, how many ranks there should be placed, what is the number of those ranks, and so forth. The Minister of Home Affairs has no authority on those matters, as some seek to impugn.
Only a few weeks ago there was a demonstration from the Square of the Revolution down to St. Stanislaus College. I saw the permission that was granted; I saw the application that was made. As a rule, the police would send those to the Minister of Home Affairs, so that he would be kept informed. I saw the application that was made, the time and the date for which the procession would march from Square of the Revolution to St. Stanislaus College. I also saw the permission that was granted in accordance with the request that was made. Not a single variation was made. The date applied for was granted; the hours applied for was granted. What happened, Mr. Speaker, was that as the procession wended its way along Brickdam there were no leaders leading that procession. When the procession arrived at the destination for which permission was granted the barriers were pushed down and we saw the spectacle in front of this Parliament Office. That I heard this afternoon was condoned and described as within the law. This cannot be within the law. That is lawlessness being condoned as law. It cannot happen in any part of the world where laws are laid down. Permission is being granted on a particular day, to proceed at a particular time and yet for all they breached, looked at the police and laughed at them, make a mockery of law, and simply because it was believed they have the numbers.
I heard Mr. Felix spoke about intelligence and what we should be putting emphasis on is intelligence. This is rather surprising coming from a former Commissioner of Police because all intelligence can tell in a situation, which has to do with assembling, is based on the application that is made for the assembling to take place, the numbers that are gathered. There is no where intelligence can tell certain that things are being planned. The Attorney General was quite in order when he said that many times when the assembly breaks up into total disorder the experience tells us that no one takes responsibility for what happens. When persons are arrested we are told that it is the wrong persons who are arrested.
We cannot take lawlessness and deem it acting within the law as we have seen it occurred not too long ago.
I heard some Members of this House spoke about paranoia and accusing us on this side of the House of being paranoid. Every State, every Government, big or small, developing or developed, industrialised or otherwise, has a responsibility to its citizens. If in the United Kingdom (UK) and if in New York City at every corner of every junction there is cameras, every subway every underground, watching the movement of people simply because they have the interest of the public at heart and to ensure that anyone who is engaged in activities that is against the law that they have the necessary electronic and other means to identify those persons. What do we call those States? Do we call the United Kingdom and Germany police States? Do we call them national security States? A country such as Guyana, which has had a history, contemporary history that is, with so much criminal activities, new forms of crime emerging, will obviously have to take steps to protect the larger public. Every single citizen has to be protected and those who are short-sighted in believing that in calling for the removal of barriers is in their interest because they want to have their supporters outside the Parliament Office, they may very well one day regret it.
As was seen at the funeral of Mr. Hoyte - we have that file of what took place at Mr. Hoyte’s funeral - this is what I will like to quote from the Guyana Chronicle, December 31, of 2002. The article reads:
“The smooth flow of yesterday State’s funeral for former Executive President and Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Hugh Desmond Hoyte, was marred by several instance of unruly behaviour by some sections of the massive crowd…”
I heard reference was made to the assertion that there was a small crowd.
“…which turned out in their thousands to bid farewell to their fallen hero…”
We had the same thing for Dr. Cheddi Jagan.
“…mayhem and confusion reigned shortly after noon as the cortege, carrying the body of Mr. Hoyte, slowly made its way to the entrance of the Public Buildings in Georgetown where the formal ceremony of the State funeral was about to begin. As the cortege approached the entrance of Public Buildings, everyone lurched forward and converged around the open back vehicle carrying the wooden casket. They prevented the cortege from moving forward. This section of the crowd totally ignored the pleadings over the microphone for the restoration of some assemblage of some order. The gates were finally opened to allow the cortege to enter the courtyard of the Public Buildings. The unruly crowd then seized the opportunity to push the gates open and more than one hundred of them entered the compound despite the valid attempts by the police, other security personnel, officials of the Central Executive of the PNC to prevent this from happening.”
We sometimes have to be more futuristic in our thinking and this short-sighted view, open up the place, let the people come in,…There are times when our Members of Parliament approached this Parliament Office with big crowds outside there and they feel threatened. Why should they feel threatened? Why should our Members of Parliament feel threatened because the Opposition supporters are outside there? That is not a peaceful assemble. We have never brought our supporters in front here, we can do it, to threaten the PNC Members of Parliament and unless we deal with matter in a manner that respects those who would not wish to be part of any demonstration, any protest, we will end up in a situation that proves to be extremely harmful to all.
The motion is misconceived. I do not wish to repeat many of the arguments, very skilfully and well articulated by the Attorney General in respect to the constitutional aspect of this matter, but I have canvassed the opinions of many learned attorneys on this matter. I have spoken to every single former Attorney General and they have all coincided with the view of the current Attorney General. Reference was made to another incident in front of this National Assembly. I think it is important for me to refer to this from a police perspective; it is not from a legal perspective. Mr. Nandlall has already done that very effectively. This is quoted from the Stabroek News newspaper, Friday, 27th of February, 1998, where it states:
“A police woman was rushed to the hospital after she was hit in the chest with a stone thrown from an unruly crowd in front of Parliament Building. This was confirmed by Police Commissioner Laurie Lewis.
The convening of the Seventh Parliament yesterday at 2 o’clock saw a small crowd of about fifty persons gathered in front of Parliament Building, this number swelled to about four hundred between 2.30 and 3.30. They stood on Brickdam shouting slogans,” Janet must go”, “We want Desmond”… At 2.00 p.m. the crowd was cautioned by the police to tone down their chanting but they become even more vociferous.
Then, eventually, they began taunting the police, provoking the police, as they are usually want to do thinking that because they have the numbers and that because the police has a smaller presence in these demonstrations they can overrun the police and tell the police what to do. This is disrespectful to our law and order - total disrespect.
One of the barriers was lifted up and thrown - someone lifted up one of those barriers; it is not a hard thing to lift up - towards…
“A police woman was struck with of the trestle that was used for the barriers as she wrestled with some aggressive member of the crowd…”
This is the news paper report. This is not Clement Rohee saying this.
“…and then the stone throwing on the President’s car began.”
The records speak for themselves.
I made a note here where the Hon. Member Mrs. Backer said that they already have the numbers. Well, then what sense it is if they already have the numbers and they are relying on the numbers to win a debate because this is what this House was established to do, to debate issues and by force of argument try to convince each other, but this no longer prevails. What prevails now is the numbers.
This question about these barriers putting up since 9 o’clock in the morning… That is a judgement call of the police force. Mr. Speaker, do you want the Minister of Home Affairs to call the police and ask them why they put up a barrier at 9 o’clock, put it up at 10 o’clock? Or why they put it up at 10 o’clock, put it up at 11 o’clock? On what basis am I instructing them to do so? Why, in the first instance, should I instruct the police to do something that is fundamentally operational in nature when it is the same thing I am being accused of interfering in operational activities of the Guyana Police Force. We simply cannot have it both ways.
I do not support the motion for a number of reasons. I believe that the police force must be left to do its job. I have no doubt that, as we say in local Guyanese parlance, “when push comes to shove” it knows what it has to do. This Guyana Police Force has successfully ensured that Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA) was held in this country; Cricket World Cup was successfully held. Many other activities, at the Stadium, are held and there is never a complaint. Why there should be a complaint about barriers putting up in front of the Public Buildings for all of our protection? I shuddered when our Members of Parliament told me that there are fearful of protestors out there because they do not know what physical harm can come to them. I know if physical harm comes to them no one will take responsibility. We have a concern too, but they do not have a concern over there, because it is not our supporters who will come out there. I am sure that if it is our supporters who are out there they will probably have a similar concern and that is how we need to balance this issue.
Now in respect of loudspeakers, and so on, we cannot have loudspeakers here and there is the court over there. I know that there are many attorneys at law in this House. I have seen letter from the Chancellor complaining of noise nuisances in front the precinct of the court. There is a school just behind here. Are we not to take that into consideration with the loudspeakers? This loudspeaker business is an old time thing. Gone are the days when people used to use loudspeakers to do things. Maybe, Mr. Trotman used to drive around with loudspeaker at the top of vehicles to… - PBB 3927, PBB 809, PN 115 or H 7980. Maybe those were the vehicles that were used in those days to drive around to distribute commodities or to announce meetings, or something or the other - whenever we pasteurised milk, or cornmeal. Those days are passed; that is water under the bridge.
Mr. Trotman, himself, has participated in many assemblies in the precinct of this National Assembly. [Mr Trotman: I will continue to do so.] You have been doing for years. On the 12th of November, 2009, Mr. Trotman participated in a picketing demonstration in the vicinity of Public Buildings together with Red Thread, Help and Shelter, Concerned Citizens Organisation and the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). On the 2nd of November, 2009 he picketed in front the Guyana Police Force Headquarters on behalf of WPA, together with Karen De Souza, Collymore, Bacchus and Marcus. On the 20th of October, 2009 he participated in a picketing demonstration in the vicinity of Public Buildings on behalf of the Concern Citizens Organisation. On the 16th of October, 2009 police gave permission to hold a public meeting at 4.30 p.m. on the tarmac, on Brickdam, opposite the Parliament Office, just behind the southern fence of St. Andrews Kirk. The Hon. Member participated in that as well.
The Hon. Member has a very impressive track record as an oppositionist in rallies, marches and demonstrations. I do not want to burden the House with those historical data, but I have already spoken about the irrelevance of the loudspeaker and how it could disturb the school and the church. Let us not believe that the church is active only on Sunday. I know that people go in there during the week also. In any case, Mr. Speaker, you will have to get permission from the police to use a noisy instrument. You will have to go, in any case, back to the police; you cannot just do that on your own. You can assemble but once you are using a noisy instrument you have to get permission from the police to do - you run from the zombie and you butt up to the coffin.
I would like to conclude on this note. One, I do not support the motion because notwithstanding the authority of this Parliament, the authority of the Speaker, the House and the Members, it cannot impinge on the responsibilities of the Guyana Police Force. This Parliament cannot direct the Guyana Police Force on how to conduct its operational functions. The Speaker, as is want, as is usually happened in the past and as is now, together with the Clerk, could call in a representative of the Guyana Police Force or ‘A’ Division and share with that representative their thoughts on this matter. That is done through a process of consultations and discussions. It may very well be that the police on their own could agree with the Speaker, but I do not think it could be done by edict, because the police, if they ignore that, they will be within their right to do so.
Even if this motion is sent to the Guyana Police Force Headquarters, to the Commissioner of Police, as the Attorney General pointed out, acting within his mandate does not necessarily have to take that into account. I believe the best way to deal with these matters is how it has been dealt with in the past, where the Speaker and the Clerk, or the Clerk, under the instructions of the Speaker, invite the Commander of ‘A’ Division, have a talk with the Commander, so that they can see eye to eye on this issue and if there is need be, try to strike a balance. To force a motion simply because there is the numbers and to direct that to the Commissioner to say do this, there will be problems. I believe the first option that I gave is the best way to go.
Then finally in respect to the loudhailers, and so forth, well, I do not want to repeat what I said but I believe that is not a modern option. That is not the way to go. In respect of accessibility, I do not agree with those arguments, that this Parliament of Guyana is not accessible to members of the public. This Parliament of Guyana has always been accessible to members of the public. I remember myself and the current President would have come and sat in the public gallery for hours…
I believe, as a person who had frequent this National Assembly for years, not necessarily as a parliamentarian, but as someone sitting in that gallery, that this National Assembly has always been in accessible, beginning with Mr. Ramkarran and then with yourself, you have taken initiative to even make it even more accessible.
The worst thing that I would like to see happen, Mr. Speaker, is when you invite, as you have been doing over the months, schoolchildren or some guests, who would come and sit in that corner or delegations, who would come here, and when they approach this National Assembly they feel intimidated by a crowd that is shouting and keeping a lot of noise out there. They will leave with an impression that harms the country. I do not think any reasonable Guyanese would like that to happen. All those are factors that we have to take into consideration. It is not a question of my partisan political interest; it is not only what is good for my party; but it is what is good for the country. It is what is good for all Members of Parliament.
Thank you Mr. Speaker. [Applause]
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