As several high-ranking members continue to be questioned by investigators into the use of
state funds to develop an exclusive housing community at Sparendaam, East Coast Demerara, it appears that the administration is not too worried about a clause in the 1980 constitution which offers immunity to a sitting president.
According to Minister of State, Joseph Harmon, the Constitutional immunity protection argument may become harder to defend if the former president re-enters the political arena.
The issue has reared its head in recent days as former President Bharrat Jagdeo and several of his ministers and a number of others were called in for questioning into the roles they played in the housing development.
Jagdeo who was Tuesday arrested and escorted to the Camp Road office of the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU), an arm of the police that has been investigating money laundering and other crimes, has invoked the immunity protection.
According to the Constitution, Article 182 (1), subject to the provisions of Article 180, “the holder of the office of the President shall not be personally answerable to any court for the performance of the functions of his or her office or for any act done in the performance of those functions and no proceedings, whether criminal or civil, shall be instituted against him or her in his or her personal capacity in respect thereof either during his or her term of office or thereafter.”
Article 182 (2) went even further. “Whilst any person holds or performs the functions of the office of President, no criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him or her in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him or her private capacity and no civil proceedings shall be instituted or continued in respect of which relief is claimed against him or her or anything done or omitted to be done in his or her private capacity.”
It is believed that Jagdeo, who ended his Constitutional two-terms in 2011, oversaw a plot that saw state funds used to develop an ocean-side plot of prime property at Sparendaam. Several of his ministers were reportedly sold plots at what appeared to be below the market price. There was no evidence that the lands were open for sale to other Guyanese.
Jagdeo himself received one of the largest plots, and built his mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
It is the use of state funds to develop the lands and the manner in which the plots of land were distributed that has SOCU investigating.
The visits of those former Government officials and their relatives were captured by news houses which staked out SOCU’s office.
Questioned yesterday about the administration’s thoughts of the controversial law, Harmon during the post-Cabinet’s press briefing, explained that the Constitution is “very clear” regarding the immunity of a sitting president who takes certain steps while he is in office.
“We respect that,” he said.
However, the administration may be looking to amend those immunity laws during the Constitutional reform process which is expected to take off shortly.
Harmon, a lawyer, noted that there must be exception. “One cannot commit an egregious act in office which can be deemed as such in an international court and still believe that nothing can happen locally.”
He referred to news reports yesterday in which South Korean female president, Park Geun-hye, was forced from office, after the country’s constitutional court upheld a Parliamentary vote to impeach her over a corruption and cronyism scandal that could see her face criminal charges.
“The constitution can be looked at in a certain way.”
He said that the Coalition Government has always held the view that the laws give the President immunity while he or she is in office.
However, the situation in Guyana has evolved with the feeling that the framers of the Constitution believing that a president once he or she has demitted office will “basically” lead a more quiet; a sedate life.
With regards to the Guyana context, Minister Harmon insisted that a former president (Bharrat Jagdeo) now sits in the National Assembly.
“So how can you claim immunity while actively engaged in day-to-day politics?”
Jagdeo, who has made it clear that he was retiring form politics, returned to the scene after his party’s- the People’s Progressive Party- devastating one-seat loss in 2015 after more than two-decades in power.
Jagdeo’s rule was dotted by accusations of cronyism and corruption.
Harmon noted that there is even a former president who writes weekly in the newspapers. According to Harmon, it is not unusual for a former president to be granted a certain level of courtesy.
“…But if in fact by then after they leave office they descend into the arena, then I would say they have to be dealt with by the persons in the arena,” he warned.
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