First session of COI into Dr Walter Rodney’s death concludes

Officials of the PPP and PNC at the hearings

Testimonies show PNC government’s direct involvement
THE first session of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the death of former historian/politician Dr. Walter Rodney, who was assassinated some 33 years ago, came to an end last Friday and the second nine-day session will begin on May 27.
The four-day hearings last week revealed the horrific and frightening political climate which pervaded Guyana during the People’s National Congress’s (PNC) rule where citizens were not only denied the basic human and constitutional rights, but were inflicted with severe violence when they sought to enjoy and exercise those rights.

Reverend Reuben Gilbert after giving testimony on Tuesday
Reverend Reuben Gilbert after giving testimony on Tuesday

The hearings were opened in the Supreme Court Law Library in Georgetown last Monday by Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) Richard Cheltenham and the first witness, Senior Superintendent of Police Leslie James, attached to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) was called to give evidence.
Three other witnesses were called during the week namely, Lawrence Edward Rodney, eldest sibling of the deceased Rodney; Reverend Reuben Gilbert, friend and supporter of Dr. Rodney; and Karen De Souza, Red Thread Coordinator.
The Commission’s Lead Counsel, Glen Hanoman and his team of lawyers, Latchmie Rahamat and Nicola Pierre, have only managed to complete the testimony of one witness namely, Reverend Gilbert, and hence the other three witnesses will be returning during the second session, either to continue giving their evidence or to be cross-examined. Evidence will also be taken from more witnesses as many persons are still coming forward to indicate their willingness to testify in the COI.
According to Rahamat, in an invited comment, all of the witnesses could not be completed during the first session because of the nature of the evidence that is coming forth. “There is so much to say of what happened during that time. People who are coming to testify are people who were physically there or was affected some way or another.”

Eldest brother of the deceased Rodney, Lawrence Edward Rodney makes a point during his testimony
Eldest brother of the deceased Rodney, Lawrence Edward Rodney makes a point during his testimony

Meanwhile, President Donald Ramotar last Friday lauded the work of the COI so far and observed that it is being done in a thorough fashion. “The committee is doing its work and I am happy that people are coming forward. I will reserve further comments for later,” he said.
Here’s a recap of what transpired during the first session of the hearings:

Two witness to remain anonymous for now;
Secret surveillance files on Rodney presented to COI
Monday 28: Lead Counsel Hanoman, during his opening comments, informed that one of the witnesses to testify in the COI is expected to speak about his personal assignment to infiltrate the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), for which Dr. Rodney was co-founder, and to carry out acts of “subterfuge and assassination.” He said he preferred to let this witness, and one more remain anonymous for the time being because they have expressed safety and security concerns. This witness will testify about his membership in the Special Squad of the Guyana Police Force (GPF), which has been referred to as the ‘Death Squad’ and about surveillance work done by it, including its attendance at WPA meetings. Further, the witness will reveal details about his having to report to Laurie Lewis, Cecil ‘Skip’ Roberts and Norman Mc Clean and taking directions from them as the “intellectual authors.”
Meanwhile, first time evidence, previously reported to the commission as non-existent, was presented. The secret files are original documents that contain detailed accounts of surveillance activities of Rodney. The surveillance files of the special branch of the GPF were presented as evidence by Leslie James.

PNC Gov’t killed Rodney;
House of Israel breaks up WPA meetings, beat up supporters

Red Thread Coordinator Karen De Souza giving her testimony
Red Thread Coordinator Karen De Souza giving her testimony

Tuesday 29: De Souza, during her testimony, said she was associated with the WPA in the 1970’s, and that her initial opinion after she learned that Dr Rodney was dead was that he had “finally” been killed by the People’s National Congress (PNC) Government. She recalled arriving on the scene moments after Rodney was killed in a white car on Friday June 13, 1980. De Souza referred to the “very serious adversarial posture of the WPA and the PNC,” and “the fact that at more than one of the PNC rallies, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham had been uttering threats about making wills and so forth; that people in the worst possible alternative should make their wills…and that the steel of the PNC was sharper than any steel that the WPA might have.” De Souza said some of these threats were made at the Square of the Revolution at what might have been a PNC anniversary rally. Furthermore, the fact that two other party members were also killed before Rodney also fuelled her feeling about the PNC’s involvement. Ohene Koama was shot in Shirley Field Ridley Square and Edward Dublin in Linden. Both of these murders occurred prior to 1980. An inquest was held into the Koama killing and “the public attitude of the government was this is what happens when you oppose us.” No one was ever charged with these murders to the best of De Souza’s knowledge. She informed that the WPA was totally opposed to many of the policies and behaviour of the PNC and hence the WPA was no friend of the PNC. She recalled how when she attended WPA meetings in 1979, some were broken up by the ‘Death Squad.’ The ‘Death Squad’ wore plain clothes and was particularly vicious, De Souza said, adding that the attackers were usually armed with police batons, arms and hockey sticks and they had no problem using them on persons who were unarmed.

Crime Chief Leslie James was the COI’s first witness
Crime Chief Leslie James was the COI’s first witness

The other witness called was Dr Rodney’s eldest brother, Lawrence Edward Rodney. He testified that the GPF acted in conjunction with the House of Israel (HOI) to break up peaceful pickets held by the WPA and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). He related how the GPF was at the time acting as an arm of the ruling PNC and was being used to intimidate any enemy of the ruling party. Rodney said whenever the HOI disrupted meetings by the PPP and WPA, the police never approached them. In fact, the police had strong reservations about restraining the HOI, he said. During 1977 and 1978, he witnessed this type of behaviour by the police on several occasions like at Kitty Market, Merriman’s Mall and La Penitence, opposite Twins Drugs Store. He said whenever the HOI came out in public, their general posture and demeanour showed their loyalty to the PNC Government. They also carried such slogans as: “Down with the WPA” and “We don’t want Rodney.” There is no doubt that preferential treatment was given to the HOI, Rodney disclosed, and whenever they disrupted meetings, the HOI was known for throwing bricks, beating people with sticks, cutting wires at meetings, etc. According to Rodney, Gregory Smith, also known as Cyril Johnson, accused of Rodney’s murder was also a member of the HOI. He said he knows this because he once saw him walking on Russell Street decked in the uniform of the HOI. Described as local bullies, the HOI used red, black and green as their colours, the same as those used by the PNC.

The Commission’s Lead Counsel Glen Hanoman
The Commission’s Lead Counsel Glen Hanoman

I was physically brutalised because of my politics – Reverend Gilbert; Williams upbraided for baseless objections

Wednesday 30 : Friendship with Dr. Rodney proved costly to Reverend Gilbert in the 1970’s, who told the COI that had he not left his home one night, he would have been executed by the youth arm of the PNC, then known as the Young Socialist Movement (YSM). Gilbert, 78, was the fourth witness to be called. Gilbert maintained that he had never been a member of the WPA but supported Rodney because they had become friends. Gilbert provided details of the time he was about to be killed by the YSM, and also recalled other incidents when his life was severely threatened by agents of the PNC Government. He spoke about the time when he was denied employment by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham because he wrote for the PPP’s Mirror newspaper and not the PNC’s New Nation. Gilbert also told the COI that about three days before Rodney died, he had a strong intuition that he was going to be killed. He said he wanted to warn Rodney but hesitated. A force in him, however, kept pressing him to go to Rodney. Without even knowing where Rodney’s office was at this time, Gilbert said he nevertheless ended up at the correct address and warned Rodney that he was going to be killed. “He looked at me and dropped his head. He asked me to tell him about any situation I may have known about. I didn’t know anything else. I left and three days later he was killed.”
Meanwhile, during the proceedings, the COI took PNC Chairman Basil Williams to task for his repeated objections about hearsay evidence being admitted. Williams, who sits on the legal team representing the Party’s interest, charged that Guyanese laws have been suspended to facilitate the COI and that, “anything goes in this Commission.” But Commissioner Seenath Jairam said he personally took umbrage at this statement as it reflects very badly on the commissioners.
“I think you have not thought through this statement. We have not suspended the laws. We are bound by the laws. You are making a very serious statement. I don’t think you are being fair to us. Speaking for myself, I have not suspended the laws of Guyana. So I want to make that clear to you,” Jairam told Williams, following one of his repeated objections. Commissioner Cheltenham urged Williams not to doubt the commissioners’ capacity to determine relevance and that no one spoke of suspending the Laws of Guyana, but flexibility was what was discussed. Commissioner Samuels-Brown urged Williams to be specific when he raised objections and criticise.
“I would just like to give my own caution that when you raise these objections, you should be specific to the matter that you are objecting to and not give a wide ranging condemnation.”

Rodney’s Death: An act of terrorism by PNC agents
Friday May 2: Lawrence Edward Rodney returned to give his testimony. He told the COI on this occasion that his brother’s death was “an act of terrorism by agents of the State or of the State Apparatus.” Furthermore, he said: “I am of the view that there was a network of persons targeting the leadership of the WPA (Working People’s Alliance for which the deceased Rodney was co-founder). He was murdered by a terrorist grouping.” Rodney further pointed out to the COI that Gregory Smith, also known as Cyril Johnson, who was accused of the murder of Rodney, was a “uniformed member of the state.” He was a member of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF). Rodney, who has some experience in relation to ‘walkie talkies’ from his stint in the army in England, said there is absolutely no way that the ‘walkie talkie’ with the explosives inside of it could have been used for the purpose of a walkie talkie. With the explosives inside of it, it could never have functioned as a walkie talkie but it was an explosive device, he testified. Rodney also testified that on June 14, 1980, at about 7 am, he was taken to Lykens Funeral Parlour and asked to identify a corpse. He said he recognised it was his brother’s because there were almost no marks on his face. It was unblemished.
By Telesha Ramnarine