“You are seeing individuals and institutions which were once considered ‘untouchable’ being hauled before the court. This is causing them to react in a particular way. They come out with criticisms of all sorts…” – Special Prosecutor
By Kiana Wilburg
For 14 years, there was little to no action taken against money laundering in Guyana. The creation of the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) in 2013 was intended to change this state of affairs.
By the time it was operationalised the following year, there were concerns that this arm of the police force would not be given the freedom and the resources needed to break the backs of money launderers.
With just a few cases making it to the court, the perception that SOCU was a “toothless poodle” quickly became an irrefutable truth in the minds of many critics.
But that image of SOCU is changing. SOCU has been able to take before the court, institutions and persons who, under different circumstances, would have been deemed “untouchables.”
Of course, SOCU is now surfing a new wave of criticisms for such an approach. The quality of its investigations is being questioned by some. Many believe that this is not an unjust criticism especially when one considers SOCU’s limited resources.
For attorney-at-law, Patrice Henry, SOCU has been able to surpass its expectations when one takes into account the political climate in which it was born. He stated that SOCU has moved from being a “toothless poodle” to a “fearless predator” against financial crimes.
On Friday, Henry shared his thoughts on the organisation, the challenges it is facing and the capacity issues that it must overcome.
The Special Prosecutor noted that SOCU is now tasked with the responsibility of dealing with organised crime.
Being an arm of the Guyana Police Force, SOCU would be able to benefit from the resources available to the Force. But since SOCU deals with organised crime, Henry said that it would have to equip itself with persons who are forensically trained in dealing with audits, financial documents, and organised crime at different levels.
He commented that most of these crimes would lead to money laundering activities and central to SOCU’s objective is breaking the backs of money laundering enterprises.
“So its job really entails having persons with the necessary knowledge so that they could go into any institution and get the relevant document or information that would assist them in a court of law.”
Henry described SOCU’s performance to date as commendable. “Its capacity is one that is building and improving as time progresses. At this stage, I would say that I am satisfied with SOCU’s performance because I am privy to some of those investigations and the presentations of some of those files. I think that it is up to the standard to deal with money laundering activities.”
Henry was reminded that his expression of satisfaction is in conflict with that of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Shalimar Ali-Hack, who noted that SOCU needs to carry out proper investigations.
In a statement to the media, the DPP said, “SOCU needs to focus on doing quality investigations before sending files to these Chambers for legal advice because charges are based on evidence and not on wild recommendations. In doing quality investigations, they must obtain the relevant evidence in relation to the ingredients of the offences that they are investigating.”
Taking this into consideration, Henry said he was not privy to some of the factors or circumstances that led to the DPP making such utterances. He noted, however that SOCU works in tandem with the DPP.
“They cannot operate without the fiat of the DPP. So if the DPP is saying that the quality is poor, maybe she is speaking about the quality at the investigative stage. So with her input, they would be able to bring it up to a standard that she would be satisfied with before offering her fiat in those matters. SOCU would recognise its short comings in this regard and so it is a learning experience…”
SOCU has on its hand, a number of complex forensic audits, each requiring hundreds of miniature investigations. This is in addition to the backlog of money laundering cases that it has to deal with. As such, the general feeling in some quarters is that SOCU is overwhelmed.
Henry said that he would concede that indeed, the entity is overwhelmed.
“It needs to improve its capacity base in terms of human resources as I mentioned before, but there are challenges. When you have small organisations, in a small country and then there are some persons with unexplained wealth, those factors really create a difficulty in recruiting witnesses for cases.”
“Those persons have the resources to undermine those investigations. And since we are dealing with paper trails, and other forms of evidence, some of these things can disappear before the investigation even gets underway.”
The Special Prosecutor pointed out that there is more than one matter before the court where the individuals or institutions are refusing to cooperate in providing documents to enable SOCU to deal with the real challenge of money laundering activities.
A few months ago, SOCU approached the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (GBTI) for information on the accounts of a number of former officials of the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB). The Bank has refused and is yet to comply with an order of the court which states that GBTI should provide SOCU with the documents requested.
Failure to comply with the order saw seven high ranking officials of GBTI being slapped with contempt charges. They were arraigned before Chief Magistrate, Ann McLennan in the Georgetown Magistrates’ Courts and were all released on their own recognizance (self bail) after pleading not guilty to a charge of failing to comply with a Production Order.
In this regard, Henry said that there are reasons best known to those persons as to why they would wish to do so.
“But if they are aware, time would not be a rescue ground for them, because irrespective of which government is in place, once money laundering activities are being conducted, the international anti-corruption treaties we are signed onto have to be obeyed. Those who are conducting the activities would always be prosecuted for money laundering activities whether locally or internationally.”
Even if one were to take a yardstick to determine where SOCU should or could have been at this stage, Henry maintains that SOCU is at a position where it is performing beyond expectations.
“My reason for saying this is persons are aware of the political and economic climate, as well as other challenges facing this arm of the police force. Many comment that they lack capacity, yet you are seeing individuals and institutions which were once considered ‘untouchable’ being hauled before the court. This is causing them to react in a particular way. They come out with criticisms of all sorts. SOCU recognises.”
Henry insists that if SOCU were to get the cooperation it needs; then it would reach a far way in terms of its success rate. In this regard, he reiterated that SOCU has been asking for documents and it has seen nothing but opposition.
“Those documents are not forthcoming and there is a legitimate reason why. So, based on its history and the political climate it came from, SOCU is performing beyond its expectations. It is woefully understaffed but fortunately, we are staffed with officers who have a combined experience of over 100 years…”
To be continued in tomorrow’s edition…
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