Lessons from a controversial arrest

Police proceeded with the arrest of opposition Labour MP, Shakeel Mohamed, on Monday this week. He was provisionally charged on four counts by the police: conspiracy to commit murder, giving instructions to commit larceny, procuring revolver in the commission of murder and possession of revolver obtained by means of a crime. The case goes back to October 1996, 19 years from now.

It involved a shootout among political activists in the course of a street fight in one region of Port Louis during the campaign for municipal elections. Three persons fell under the bullets. The victims of 1996 were Labour Party activists.

Shakeel Mohamed was a candidate in the elections at that time of today’s ruling MSM party, then opposed, as it is the case today, to Labour. He’s now in the opposition Labour Party and one who stoutly opposes the government in the House, despite the heavily thinned down representation of Labour following the last elections.

It appears the latest police investigation leading to the arrest of the Labour MP on Monday last was triggered by a recent statement made to the police by the widow of one of the three persons killed in the shootout 19 years ago. She has claimed time and again that justice hasn’t been done regarding the killing of her husband.

This has provided an opportunity to the police to arrest the opposition MP on provisional charges. In the Bail and Remand Court, the Magistrate did not yield to the request of the police to maintain Shakeel Mohamed in detention in the context of the provisional charges laid down against him. The Magistrate was not prepared to deprive him of his freedom in the light of the allegations being made against him.

Shakeel Mohamed is thus the third Labour member – after Navin Ramgoolam and Anil Baichoo – to be arrested in the recent period. He is obviously deeply perturbed by all that has happened in this context, including a house search at his private residence by the police on the lookout for evidence to support its case – which would have yielded nothing incriminating.

This latest episode has raised questions about the bona fide of the police. Even before the present government was elected to power, the police used its power to arrest persons on what are called ‘provisional charges’. One of the issues in the course of the previous election campaign was to raise the standard of proof to a much higher level before police could proceed with the arrest of a person on what are conveniently called ‘provisional charges’.

Unfortunately, succeeding governments appear to have merely paid lip service to this serious issue. At everybody’s cost. Police are accordingly still vested with powers of arrest which are considered as being arbitrary, at best, and selective, at worst. Surprisingly, two of the most visible politicians of the current government have stated that police may have overdone it in the case of the present arrest of Shakeel Mohamed.

But politicians do all sorts of things as it suits their convenience – and one should not always take their statements at their literal value. They may be chasing other objectives, such as not allowing the arbitrariness that many have seen in police actions to portray the government as being an accomplice in the acts and omissions of the police. Police may conveniently be offloaded, according to this kind of political logic, to avert having to pay a heavy political price.

All this should not abstract from the basic requirement that justice should be meted out in all cases. For example, if there are doubts that the true culprits involved in a crime haven’t been identified and punished according to law, there would be reasons to pursue investigations until the truth has been established.

Surely, however, a person cannot be arrested on the mere grounds that someone comes forth to make a mere allegation against him. For example, it will be expected that in a rule-based country like Mauritius, police will not proceed to lay down ‘provisional charges’ against someone in the absence of hard evidence and then go on to arrest him in consequence. Nor will police be expected to go on a ‘fishing expedition’ to collect enough information on which to indict a person.

All this has sparked a climate of suspicion as to what really could be going on. There are views in certain quarters that the police are being ‘instrumentalized’ to serve political ends. This may not be true but after all the tampering being done with our laws, the idea is increasingly gaining ground that there could be more motives than meet the eye.

It is in the best interest of the country that the general atmosphere is not poisoned by suspicions and doubts about our institutions which derive their intrinsic strength and authority on the understanding that they cannot be influenced by ruling political establishments. Had that not been the perception, the previous and current governments would not have raised the issue of doing away with the system of laying down ‘provisional charges’. Without taking the appropriate action, anyway.

In the present case involving Shakeel Mohamed, the court has already decided that the police has to establish a higher standard of proof if it wants to keep him in detention. This is perhaps as far as a court can travel, given the present setup. The aim should be to put the police above the suspicion of acting arbitrarily.

One step in this direction would be to require it to produce more tangible proof – as in the present case – before proceeding with an arrest. Additionally, it would be apt at this stage to put an independent body equipped with the required authority, expertise and credibility to oversee the work of the police and take actions in real time to avert any loss of credibility of the force in the public eye. Such an authority will be made up of persons who are not politically answerable. Its principal job should be to ensure that “Caesar’s wife is always above reproach”.

It is said that actions speak louder than words. Will we then take the initiative to make the police arrest system more objectively testable and not subjected to abuse, thus going beyond the pious statements politicians have frequently made on the subject? Time has shown that politicians who have failed to act in this direction might themselves have become victim of a system exposed to potential abuse.

 

* Published in print edition on 27 November 2015

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