Arnold Rampersaud trials
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After the PNC rigged itself a two-thirds majority in the July 1973 Guyana elections, it consolidated its power by applying repressive measures on the PPP, which continued to actively protest the rape of democracy in the country. Human rights were routinely trampled by the PNC regime which used all instruments of the state in the acts of repression. This period of PNC rule saw one of the most publicised political trials, when a PPP member, Arnold Rampersaud, was placed on a trumped up charge of murder.
The toll gate shooting
It all began on 18 July 1974. At around 10.00 that evening, when electric lights were already switched off in the area, gunshots rang out at the No. 62 Village toll station on the Corentyne. Police Constable James Henry, a guard at the facility, was shot dead by the roadside after he exchanged fire with one or more unknown persons. His companion, a rural constable, Joachim Francis who received minor injuries was at the time resting in the toll booth.
Moments later, a car driven by Government Medical Officer Dr. Fyzul Sattaur drove up from the south-eastern side of the toll station going towards New Amsterdam to the north-west. Immediately, Francis ran out screaming that unknown persons had shot at them. Dr. Sattaur sped off to the No. 51 Police Station, about three miles westwards, where he made a report and soon after three policemen arrived and removed the body of their dead colleague to the Springlands Hospital. Francis, who was wounded on the middle toe of his left foot, was taken first to the Springlands Hospital and then later to the New Amsterdam Hospital. In his first statement to the police, he said that due to the darkness he had not seen the attackers but they had fled in the direction east of the public road. He added that no other vehicle passed the toll station before Dr. Sattaur drove up.
Meanwhile, a police tracker dog brought to the scene the next morning sniffed along a path west of the toll station.
Within hours of the shooting, the police set up a special investigation unit headed by Superintendent Fitzroy Duff, who was well known in the area - a PPP stronghold - for harassing the Party's supporters. In the hunt for clues, the unit searched the homes, dug up yards, ripped open ceilings and mattresses, and seized membership cards and literature of PPP members. Cars belonging to PPP members in the area were also seized and impounded by the police. It was clear that in the eyes of the government and its police force, the murder was a political act linked to the PPP.
The police detained and questioned many persons, and two of them, Ramjeet Mohan, a gas station worker, and Ramkarran Singh, brother of Arnold Rampersaud, were initially accused of involvement in the murder.
On 20 July 1974, the police arrested 35-year old PPP activist Arnold Rampersaud, a taxi-driver and father of five children, at the Springlands Police Station when he took food for his detained brother. After he gave a statement to the police, he was released but later that afternoon he was re-arrested. That same night Duff arrested a watchman, Kawall Rampersaud, (no relation of Arnold), and subsequently wrote out a statement in which Kawall Rampersaud claimed he saw Arnold Rampersaud's car at the toll station on the night of the shooting. (Kawall Rampersaud, at the first trial, vehemently denied he had ever made or signed such a statement). The watchman was at the time on that dark night at a location one mile away from the toll station.
Armed with this fictitious statement, the police again interviewed Francis who said he knew Rampersaud, a resident of No. 59 Village, Corentyne. But this time he claimed that he heard sounds as if a vehicle drove off just after the gunshots but he did not look to see since he was lying face down on the floor.
Unable to gather any substantial evidence, police during the next week carried out a wave of repression in the area, arresting and detaining numerous PPP supporters. One person who had only returned from Moscow one week after the shooting after completing a study course was also detained and grilled about his studies and not about the murder.
The political motive behind this repression became even clearer when the "special investigation unit" raided and ransacked Freedom House, the PPP headquarters in Georgetown and the PPP office in New Amsterdam, and searched the premises of leading PPP activists for "arms and ammunition". Freedom House was searched for nearly ten hours and in the process the police took away confidential PPP files and books on Cuba and Vietnam.
The home of PPP leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan was also searched and he was taken to police headquarters and questioned for having part of an abandoned pistol which the police had returned to him earlier after his firearm licence was taken away. He was later charged with illegal possession of a firearm.
And leading PPP member, Moses Nagamootoo who was brutally beaten up by PNC thugs in the presence of police officers just days before the toll gate shooting, was charged with "illegal possession of a firearm", but the case was dismissed in the magistrate court after the police failed to produce the alleged weapon.
Moving the trial venue
Meanwhile, the police continued to hold Arnold Rampersaud, first at the Springlands Police Station, then at the New Amsterdam Police Station and later at the Eve Leary Police Compound in Georgetown. He was prevented from meeting with his family and his lawyers for two weeks. Finally, on 1 August 1974 his wife, Dilrajie, filed a habeas corpus writ directed to the Commissioner of Police, Henry Fraser, to produce her husband. But before the matter came to the court, Rampersaud was finally charged with murder on 3 August and remanded to the Georgetown prison.
Two preliminary inquiries were held into the murder charge against Rampersaud. The first began at the Whim Magistrate Court in Berbice during October 1974 but was aborted due to the death of the presiding magistrate Jairam. The second was held before Magistrate Rai at the same venue and at its conclusion on 18 April 1975, Rampersaud was indicted to stand trial for the murder of police constable James Henry at the next sitting of the Berbice Supreme Court in June 1975.
The case was listed on several occasions for trial at the Berbice High Court, but it was never heard. Rampersaud eventually petitioned the High Court on 23 August 1975 seeking an early trial. In the hearing before Justice Aubrey Bishop, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), George Jackman, gave the assurance the trial would commence in New Amsterdam, Berbice on 8 November 1975.
But then on 27 October 1975, the state filed a petition to change the venue for the trial from New Amsterdam to Georgetown. On 1 November, before Justice Lindsay Collins, Senior Counsel Rex McKay, for the DPP, argued that the State would not have a fair hearing in Berbice since the shooting was a protest against toll fees on the Corentyne highway. He claimed that jurors in Berbice, because of their support for the PPP, had already made up their minds against the State.
Senior Counsel B.O. Adams, for Rampersaud, counter-argued that the police had never established a motive that the killing was a protest over toll fees. (Toll fees were implemented in 1972 and there were some protests against them by residents in the area at that time). He said the murder could have been the result of a triangular love affair of other personal reasons. He added that the State could not claim that the people of Berbice were against the toll fees since in the 1973 general elections, the ruling party (PNC) boasted it made a "break-through" in the county where it "won" a huge majority of the votes.
The first trial
Nevertheless, Justice Collins agreed with the State's argument and the trial began before Justice Claude Massiah and a mixed jury in Georgetown on 8 November. Rex McKay, retained by the State to prosecute its case, explained that the case was purely circumstantial and that there was no direct evidence that the accused conspired with other to commit murder. He then presented 25 witnesses who were all policemen or ex-policemen. However, all of their evidence was disproved in cross examination and by defence witnesses. It was during this time that it was revealed that the star witness Francis had made three different statements to the police. But a motion by the defence to have the police to make available all of Francis' statements was unsuccessful after the judge ruled against it.
The judge refused to accept the no-case submissions by the defence. The matter was put to the jury, but after deliberating for 11 hours, it could not agree on a verdict, and a new trial was ordered.
At the end of this first trial, a broad-based Arnold Rampersaud Defence Committee was formed, and soon a world-wide campaign began to win his freedom. This committee, made up of representatives of opposition political parties, trade unions, religious and professional groups, claimed that Rampersaud was a political prisoner and was being prosecuted for his political beliefs. The committee's campaign, which included public meetings, vigils and picketing exercises, helped to stir up public opinion with a wide cross section of people demanding a fair trial.
However, the case had already drawn sharp political lines with the PNC-controlled media openly pronouncing on Rampersaud's guilt and linking the murder of the policeman to part of a general PPP plot to undermine the government. As a result, PNC supporters publicly supported State's arguments on the case.
The second trial came up before Chief Justice Harold Bollers on 8 March 1977. International interest in the case by this time had grown and the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Cab Section of the General Transport and Workers' Union of the United Kingdom sent their representative, solicitor John Bowden, to observe the trial.
The prosecution, led by McKay, presented an almost identical case as was done in the first trial, but this time the presiding judge ruled that conflicting statements made by Francis, the rural constable, should be made available to the defence which included Adams and Senior Counsel Ashton Chase and also Maurice Bishop of Grenada. In one of these statements made long after Rampersaud was charged for murder, Francis claimed that he saw the accused in his car passing by the toll station just before the shooting!
This trial was affected by seven adjournments, one of which lasted for one week, after Bollers objected to the vigil and picketing exercise outside the court building by the Arnold Rampersaud Defence Committee. Another occurred because of the disappearance of photographic negatives held by the prosecution.
After a no-case submission by the defence was rejected, Bollers decided to send the case to the jury. Adams addressed the jury for two and a half hours during which Bollers interrupted him ten times. After the final interruption, he decided not to proceed with his statement.
In his closing address for the prosecution, McKay for the first time raised the manslaughter issue, by urging the jury to find the defendant guilty of manslaughter if they could not find him guilty of murder.
On 21 April the jury deliberated for nine hours. When they came out at 5.35 p.m. the following exchange took place:
Registrar to foreman: "Have you, members of the jury, arrived at a verdict both in respect of the offence of murder and manslaughter?"
The jury was sent back to consider the evidence and upon returning at 8.45 pm. this exchange took place:
Registrar to foreman: "Mr. Foreman, have you been able to arrive at a verdict in respect to the offences of murder and manslaughter?"
At this point Adams requested the judge to ask the jury separately what was the verdict first for murder and then for manslaughter. But Bollers bluntly refused. The jury could therefore not agree on a verdict and a third trial was then ordered for June 1977.
At the end of this second trial, the defence team filed a constitutional motion on 29 April 1977 against the Attorney General and the DPP seeking a declaration that Rampersaud's right to a fair trial was contravened by Chief Justice Bollers' refusal to allow the jury to be first asked if they had arrived at a verdict on murder before being asked about a verdict on manslaughter.
The motion argued that Rampersaud was not afforded a fair hearing and requested that the High Court should make an order releasing Rampersaud from prison either unconditionally or on bail.
In an affidavit in support of the motion, Rampersaud contended that the jury had arrived at a verdict of not guilty of murder, but were divided on manslaughter. He stated that the findings of the jury were communicated to Bollers before he directed that the question put to the jury in the manner asked by the Registrar. Rampersaud said the Chief Justice, by so doing, committed a specific illegality of a grave and fundamental nature in so directing his Registrar.
Hearing of this motion took place on 13-14 July, 1977 before Justice C. Fung-a-Fatt who eventually ruled against it. It was expected that the third trial would have commenced around the same period, but this did not occur. Subsequently, after the defence filed a motion for an early trial, it was agreed that Justice George Pompey would commence hearing on 17 November 1977.
The third trial
Meantime, the Arnold Rampersaud Defence Committee, by internationally publicising the injustice meted out to the political prisoner, was able to get Amnesty International to send its representative, Professor David Weisbrondt of the University of Minnesota, to observe the third trial. Also returning to observe the trial from England was John Bowden on behalf of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Cab Section of the General Transport and Workers' Union.
The Caribbean Legal Aid Company also sent the Trinidadian lawyer, Sash Permanand who joined the defence team headed by B.O. Adams, and including Ashton Chase, Doodnauth Singh, Stanley Persaud and Ayube McDoom.
Rex McKay, for the prosecution, again argued that there was a political motive behind the murder and insisting that Rampersaud along with unknown men killed the policeman to protest against the toll fees on the Corentyne highway. As in the previous trials, he said his case was based on circumstantial evidence since no one had seen the actual shooting. He again asked the jury to consider the alternative count of manslaughter saying that the shooting might have been only aimed at terrorising the toll station guards and not to kill anyone. McKay presented his witnesses, as he did in the previous trails, but all of them, particularly the star witness Francis, contradicted themselves during cross examination by the defence and questioning by the judge.
On the other hand, the defence maintained that the case was one of murder and nothing else, a position also taken by Justice Pompey during his summing up. On 7 December 1977, Adams, on behalf of the defence, submitted that the State had not made out a case against the accused, saying that he was a victim of a conspiracy because he was a member of the PPP.
The judge disagreed with the no-case submissions and called for a defence. Arnold Rampersaud took the stand and in a moving statement outlined the history of his case. He stated he was imprisoned for almost 1,250 days which was equivalent to serving eight years in prison if all remissions were taken into account. He was innocent of the framed-up charge, he insisted.
On 12 December, Adams summed up the case in a five-hour address in which he exposed the frame-up charge against the accused. He said while the defence would not condone the shooting of a policeman, it condemned attempts to convict the accused on fabricated evidence. He pointed out that the prosecution failed to present evidence that the accused plotted with unknown men to commit murder. He also showed that no evidence was presented that the accused took part in any anti-toll demonstrations.
There was some comical drama when McKay interrupted Adams' address by alleging that people were picketing outside the court building and, as such, were committing contempt of the court. He demanded that Judge Pompey should take action against such disturbance. The judge complied and he immediately adjourned the trial threatening to halt it if there was any picketing. The marshal of the court was sent to investigate, (but he returned soon after to report that there was no picketing outside, whereupon the judge resumed the trial.
Following Adams, McKay in his closing address tried his best to rationalise the evidence of his witnesses. He urged the jury to convict Rampersaud saying it was the duty of the state not to support anarchy, as promoted by the accused.
On the afternoon of 13 December, Judge Pompey began his summing up. He stated: "This is a case of murder or nothing. Manslaughter does not arise." His address continued on the following day and a large crowd filled the court, the corridors and the yard outside. The judge explained that the star witness Francis had contradicted himself and that there was no direct evidence against the accused.
The jury retired and at 5.35 p.m. returned with a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Immediately, there was great jubilation outside the courtroom, and soon after Rampersaud was given a hero's welcome at Freedom House, the PPP headquarters. There he declared: "Prison has not broken my love for my Party." Speaking about the support he received while in prison, he stated, "When a man knows he is innocent, he never breaks down knowing he has his brothers and sisters solidly behind him."
Later, in a letter to his supporters at home and abroad, he wrote:
"Your support gave me strength personally to endure the hardships and pressures of my period of incarceration and the three gruelling trials. . . Your recognition of my innocence and that I was the object of a frame-up for my political views and my close association with the People's Progressive Party gave me strength and also added greatly to the work of the Defence Committee and the legal defence team that represented me."
It was obvious that the broad-based Arnold Rampersaud Defence Committee played a significant role in exposing locally and internationally the frame-up and carrying the fight against injustice. In wrapping up the work of the Committee, its secretary Janet Jagan wrote on 23 January 1978:
"The frame-up of Arnold Rampersaud had not been fool-proof. The conspiracy crumbled not on its own. It crumbled under the weight of the legal battle waged by the defence and by the tremendous pressures of local and international solidarity. It crumbled because the Guyanese people were prepared to reject this violation of human rights. . .
"The Arnold Rampersaud Defence Committee is indeed grateful for the solidarity given to us and appreciates all the fine and militant work carried out on Arnold's behalf to ensure that there was one political prisoner less in the world, and one more victory for freedom and national liberation. Together we have won an important battle for justice and human rights.
31 May 2006