April 04, 2004
By Raffique Shah
IN July last year in England, a scientist named Dr David Kelly was found dead in a park in which he took his daily walk. Kelly's name had surfaced as the man who provided BBC journalists with information that allegedly accused Prime Minister Tony Blair's of "sexing up" a dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in preparation for the invasion of that country. A coroner subsequently ruled that Kelly committed suicide. Blair appointed a one-man commission in the person of Lord Hutton to investigate Kelly's death and the culpability of the BBC in what the government dubbed a flawed report.
To cut a long story short (and locals who followed the issue know well the details), Hutton exonerated Blair in a report that was dubbed one-sided, and which triggered several resignations at the internationally respected media house. He was also seen as a stooge of the Blair government, and even after his findings cleared Blair, most Britons polled did not trust the report. Blair had said if he were found culpable of doctoring the dossier, he would resign. He was not and he did not resign. Still, a cloud hangs over him in this Iraq war affair that will haunt him well into general elections due in the not distant future.
Let me change gear now. Over the past few months, a matter involving the transfer of two senior public officials has attracted public attention. The first was the removal of Senior Magistrate Deborah Felix from sitting in the preliminary inquiry into charges laid against ex-Prime Minister Basdeo Panday. Her place was taken by Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicholls. And in the other, the CEO of the San Fernando City Corporation, Marlene Coudray, was transferred by the SASC to the Point Fortin Borough. Both women refused to bow to the orders from their superiors.
I don't recall Felix taking her issue further than resisting it on grounds of her health, which justified her taking sick leave and not report to her new posting. She was subsequently transferred to another job and nothing further was heard about that. In Coudray's case, which became a cause celebre because it coincided with the resignation from Cabinet of her spouse, Minister Larry Achong, several serious allegations were made against Prime Minister Patrick Manning. In her affidavit (and one should understand that an affidavit is merely the sworn statement of a complainant or defendant, and could contain inaccuracies), she accused Manning of issuing threats against her on at least two occasions. On the first occasion, when he was in opposition, he is alleged to have threatened to "deal with her". On the second, when he was Prime Minister, he again made a similar threat.
It was after those threats that she received the transfer order, which will have been issued by the SASC. She took the matter to court, but before it could face the scrutiny of the judge, the SASC withdrew the transfer order, so there was no case to be aired in open court. Because of this development, the issue of Manning's alleged threats to her were never tested or denied. They were left hanging in the air, in a manner of speaking. It is, however, a very serious matter, as serious as the allegations in Britain that led to a reputable scientist taking his own life in the face of being hounded by a government and Prime Minister (who exposed him as BBC's source). Since the withdrawal of the transfer order virtually killed the matter, many would like to believe it's dead.
I don't. I believe that the Prime Minister has this cloud of suspicion hanging over him, and unless or until he clears the air, he remains a "suspect". Because if we believe what Coudray swore to, that she was threatened by the PM, that's unthinkable. Of course it won't be the first time that a local PM has threatened a public or political office holder. There were many such allegations during Dr Williams's 25-year rule. Town knew, as we Trinis say, which ministers he was not talking to, which ones he "buffed" for not dressing properly, and of course, he openly dubbed several of them "millstones" and refused to support their elections campaign in 1976.
Stories are told of other prime ministers and their quirks of character, or, more accurately, their dictatorial tendencies. We let them off the hook because of the psyche in this society that prime ministers are beyond pubic censure or reproach-until elections are held. But that cannot and must not be allowed. In Mr Panday's early days as Prime Minister, he is alleged to have personally called and said certain things to reporters and editors at the Guardian about a story that he perceived to be critical of his party. The end shot of that was a large body of journalists mustering the guts to walk out on the Guardian. Bearing in mind these persons were not in the direct employ of Mr Panday, one can only imagine what others might have endured in silence, especially as we know well about Mr Panday's tart tongue.
But he got away with this boorish behaviour because we allowed him to. Now that he is out of power and about to be cast into the dustbin of history, it no longer matters. But Manning is the sitting PM, and what he says or does matters. As citizens, whether we are diehard PNMites or independent thinkers (the opposition will always oppose for the sake of opposing), we must not allow Manning to get away with such irresponsible behaviour-he indeed threatened Coudray. Sure, the courts did not pronounce on the affidavit. But neither did Mr Manning deny its contents. And if they are true, they make for a frightening state of affairs. A Prime Minister could have personal feelings towards anyone, public officials included. But the nature of his office denies him the right to threaten people, especially with respect to their jobs.
So while most people might be ready to forget about Coudray and the allegations she made, right thinking citizens ought not to allow the incident to go unnoticed. Mr Manning, if he is to command respect, must deny he ever made such threats, or humbly apologise not just to the lady, but to the public. This is not Haiti where two-by-two thugs run around shooting their political opponents. This is civilised T&T, and prime ministers are not expected to act that way. Not in public, and most certainly not in private. Prime ministers are not above our laws and conventions, and must not be allowed to think they are.