Checks and Balances

What does the citizen do when those who are vested with powers to apply checks and balances, abstain from so doing when the person concerned is “important”?

There have been quite some cases in the history of Mauritius when an original insignificant fire magnified into an unintended conflagration. On one occasion, a trivial war among rival gangs ended up in a prolonged state of emergency, a random threat to innocent lives accompanied by communal riots, forcing the country to have to call in foreign armed forces to calm down passions. The risk of drifting into lawlessness and disorder is ever present. A simple tinderbox can spark it off.

In the course of a religious ceremony in the eastern part of the country last week, the Vice Prime Minister Showkutally Soodhun stated, amongst others, feeling so offended by what Leader of the Opposition Xavier Duval would have said or done about Saudi Arabia that were his bodyguard to hand him over his revolver, he could have shot Mr Duval with it in Parliament, in some sort of a “jihad” – the reference is his.

This level of public verbal violence is not a common occurrence in Mauritius. So, it sent out shock waves among the population, not solely for the threat to life being uttered but because of its potential to incite violence of a communal order in the country. Any decent observer would have noticed the disproportionate reaction Mr Soodhun was having against something Mr Duval might not really have anything to do with, such as sticking posters implicating Saudi Arabia in its confrontation with Qatar.

This matter takes on a wider dimension when looked at in a broader perspective. It is an offence under law to threaten, whether publicly or otherwise, to take away the life of another person. There were members of the government and police officers present at the function where Mr Soodhun made those life-threatening utterances.

No statement was made to the police yet about a possible offence having been committed from these quarters. By nobody. Still, Mr Soodhun himself appeared to be fumbling some apologies, when the public outcry caught up with him, about his regrettable inability to control his tongue, stating also that Xavier Duval need not feel upset about it.

Ultimately, Mr Soodhun was not investigated, nor arrested. Since this was public information, it cannot be believed that the head of Internal Security, who also happens to be the Prime Minister, and the head of police, notably the Commissioner of Police, were not informed of the serious “dérapage” in public in this instance. Mr Duval actually called on the police to make a statement about the threat to life pronounced by Mr Soodhun against him. Still, there was no action from both the police and the government establishment for this potentially arrestable offence.

The day after Mr Soodhun left for overseas, apparently for medical treatment.

The question the public would be right to ask is: would the police have levelled provisional charges and arrested the person in question if he was not a member of government, given the gravity of the offence? Would any other person, not being a member of the government, finding himself in a similar predicament, have been allowed to leave the country in such circumstances?

Is it in the discretion of police to treat different potential offenders, depending on which side of the fence they are? Is not the holder of the post of Commissioner of Police protected by the Constitution, giving him full freedom to arrest any person whomsoever he suspects or holds to have offended the law, without fear of reprisal? Did his service not believe they were empowered enough to hunt down the DPP for arrest some months ago, despite a judge’s order to the contrary? Did the police not arrest the former Prime Minister on quite a few “provisional charges” which did not pass the test of a court of law?

This makes it inexplicable why the police did not proceed in the case of Mr Soodhun the way one would have expected it to. We know that selective application of powers vested in the police has the power to undermine the credibility and authority of the police, in the absence of a clear explanation as to why it should not have proceeded in this case as it has done in others in the past.

It is also inexplicable why the government, of which Mr Soodhun is a member, did not publicly denounce the incendiary language employed by Mr Soodhun, as being unfit for someone vested with such high office. At a time when society is exhibiting a number of signs of private misconduct, one would have thought it would have been appropriate for the government to have given an exemplary signal to all by dealing with Mr Soodhun as called for, without considering political gains or losses. It was an occasion to affirm the authority of the state to stop the drift in public affairs and not condone the inexcusable conduct coming from the highest level of state.

Mauritius is best known for its unequivocal support of the rule-of-law system. If the government had made a public statement condemning this kind of unruly behaviour, accepting to deal with Mr Soodhun as appropriate, this would have affirmed its compliance with this principle. One would have got the feeling that such excesses would not be allowed to become the norm, depending on which side of the fence a person finds himself.

One is bound to ask certain fundamental questions in this context. Can citizens rely on the impartial application by the police of the same standards, irrespective of who is involved in a serious incident? Can citizens expect the government to have a predictable policy, no matter which country or person is concerned? Or, abandoning such principles, will citizens stop relying on checks and balances which are an intrinsic part of a functioning democratic system? What does the citizen do when those who are vested with powers to apply checks and balances, abstain from so doing when the person concerned is “important”?

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