Latin America

Guyana: Targeting Terrorism

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the focus on terrorism has rippled from the United States across the world not only in large and influential nations but also in small and geopolitically nonstrategic countries. Now Guyana, a poor South American country of 700,000, has introduced the concept of terrorism into its laws.

On first impression, one might think that in September 2002 Guyana joined other countries in passing legislation to combat international terrorism. But that was not the case. National Security Minister Ronald Gajraj made it clear that appending terrorism to the Criminal Offenses Act was aimed at quelling the spate of violent crimes that had been rocking the country since the escape of five prisoners in February. Since then, unidentified gunmen have killed 11 businessmen and 13 law enforcement officers, including the deputy anti-drugs czar.

Some observers believe that the governing People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), mainly supported by descendants of East Indian indentured laborers, was motivated to introduce such legislation after a prison escapee, Andrew Douglas, appeared on television in military camouflage fatigues and armed with a rifle, saying that he was fighting for the rights of African Guyanese. Even as the government and the African-Guyanese-dominated main opposition People’s National Congress/Reform (PNC/R) haggled over political motives for the crimes and whether, indeed, mostly East Indians were victimized by African-Guyanese criminals, the Criminal Law Offenses Amendment Act sparked a heated debate, particularly the provision that anyone who commits a terrorist act causing death must be sentenced to death.

Passed on Sept. 26, the law says further that anyone who threatens the security or sovereignty of Guyana or strikes terror into any section of the population is guilty of terrorism. The drafting of the law was not a surprise, because the government propaganda machinery had poured out accusations for months that the PNC/R’s actions were “terroristic” and accusing that party of supporting the criminals, charges that the PNC/R has repeatedly vehemently denied.

“First, the gunmen have to be caught and charged,” said Stabroek News in a Sept. 27 editorial, “and on that front the record of the police leaves a great deal to be desired. Furthermore...under the provisions of our current laws, they would be charged with the capital offense of murder. If that has not deterred them, why should the administration delude itself into thinking that the proposed amendment...will do so?”

But the Guyana Chronicle (Sept. 27), quoting President Bharrat Jagdeo, noted that though crime was a national scourge, the government was being lambasted for taking action. “As soon as we have tough legislative action to support our law enforcement agencies, the same people turn around and complain about the human rights of the criminals.”

Despite the war of words, it remains to be seen whether the law will be enforced, and if it will come up against a constitutional challenge in the backlogged court system known for its snail-paced operations.