– says passage of SARA Bill necessary in fight against corruption
While criticism of the State Asset Recovery Agency (SARA) Bill may be part of the democratic process, Executive Member of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), Dr. David Hinds says that stakeholders must bear one salient point in mind; all of Guyana stands to benefit immensely with its passage.
In an interview with this newspaper, Dr. Hinds commented that the Bill represents an important aspect in Guyana’s fight against corruption.
He remarked that public debate of important matters is necessary for a democratic culture and practice. He stressed, however that “critics” should take into consideration, the fact that the SARU initiative is an accepted proposal among the section of the population that was most hurt by the misappropriation of State Assets.
The WPA member said that the political and sociological aspects of asset recovery and anti-corruption are equally important as the legal and economic aspects.
“I am against setting up an authoritarian state structure, but the business of stamping out corruption and recovering stolen assets require an empowered agency. If some investors will stay away from Guyana because of SARA, then they must be suspect in the first place.”
“If I must make a choice between stamping out corruption and chasing away a few investments, I will choose the former. That is why I am squarely behind the SARA initiative. Despite some of the concerns, in the end the country benefits from the initiative.”
Furthermore, Dr. Hinds commented that Head of the State Asset Recovery Unit (SARU), Professor Clive Thomas has become the butt of the criticisms of SARA because he has undertaken something that may hurt some of the economic and political elites, but would help the working classes of Guyana.
He stressed however that asset recovery is potentially good for improving the condition of the working class. Dr. Hinds said that asset recovery would increase government revenue base and could mean more resources for education, health care, better infrastructure and improved wages. The WPA Executive Member said that the latter is crucial to decreasing corruption at the lower levels.
Furthermore, Dr. Hinds noted that the prosecution of those leaders who were directly involved in corruption under the PPP is at the center of how the government’s supporters will evaluate its performance.
In this regard, he commented that Guyanese have become very literate about government corruption. He said that more than most Caribbean countries, in Guyana, corruption has become a major political issue.
Dr. Hinds opined that the very parties which are now in office educated the public about the linkage of corruption to their impoverished condition, to ethnic dominance and to the criminalization of the State.
“That is why the announcement that charges are coming on the NICIL affair is good news. It’s about time. It’s not about persecuting anybody; it’s about ensuring that there is justice for the country which suffered because of the unprecedented corruption under the PPP.”
The political activist said that the government has no choice, but to follow through on its promise to correct that wrong. He said that its success or failure will be judged largely on that issue.
Furthermore, the Private Sector Commission has since expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the SARA Bill which was laid in the National Assembly a few weeks ago is essentially the same Bill that was presented to stakeholders last year during consultations.
The Commission stated that while the consensus of businesses is that there is a need for unlawfully appropriated assets of the State to be recovered, it was felt that the SARA Bill provides too much unchecked power to the Agency.
The body believes that based on the Bill, the Director of SARA supersedes the Courts, the Commissioner of Police and the Commissioner-General of the Guyana Revenue Authority. It said that the Bill will impede business progress as it allows for harassment and political victimization of legitimate businesses.
The Commission commented that the Bill allows staff of the Agency to arbitrarily look at private accounts and financial information of citizens without due process. It also noted that the Bill should be recalled and amended to be consistent with the constitutional rights of citizens.
CEO of the State Assets Recovery Unit, Aubrey Heath-Retemyer recently told Kaieteur News that the changes proposed by the Commission were based on the fact that they did not understand several aspects of the Bill.
The SARU Officer said that while the Commission was not alone in this boat, efforts were made to ensure that all misunderstandings regarding the Bill were clarified.
He said, “I do recall their concerns with the Bill, but the truth is that the criticisms we received on the Bill were largely due to the fact that people did not understand it, and that was the case with the Commission.”
Heath-Retemyer said that there were no “substantial” changes made to the provisions, but there was some “tightening of the language used.”
The SARA Bill is intended to give effect to the non-conviction-based asset recovery recommendations contained in the United Nations Convention Against Corruption 2003, which was ratified by the Government of Guyana in April 2008.
It therefore provides for the establishment of the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) which has as its primary function, the civil recovery of State property obtained through the unlawful conduct of a public official or other person, or any benefit obtained in connection with that unlawful conduct, by way of civil proceedings taken in the High Court for a civil recovery order.
The granting of a civil recovery order vests in the State, ownership of any property subject to the order. According to the Bill, SARA will have a Director with responsibility for the effective management and execution of its functions.
Furthermore, the Bill contains seven Parts. Part One contains general provisions such as the short title, commencement and interpretation provisions.
Part Two speaks to the establishment of SARA and its Director as a corporation sole, the appointment of a Director, Deputy Director and staff of SARA, and the terms and conditions of their appointment. This part contains provisions on how the SARA will be financed, through a budget approved by the National Assembly, and its transparency obligations, by requiring the Director to provide a detailed annual plan and annual report, both of which must be laid before the National Assembly.
In addition, SARA staff will be required to comply with the Code of Conduct prescribed in the Integrity Commission Act.
Sections Six and Seven of the Bill set out the respective functions of SARA and its Director. SARA’s functions include the investigation, tracing and identification of State property suspected to be the proceeds of unlawful conduct of a public official or other person, and to institute High Court proceedings for the civil recovery of that property.
The Bill also provides for SARA to be enabled to seek the recovery of such property wherever in the world that property may be located, and must also raise public awareness on the dangers of corruption and other crime.
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