ODPP & Betamax —
It will soon be two years since the new Government, installed after the December 10, 2014 victory in the general elections, in order execute the threats bandied about on its political platforms during the electoral campaign, decided to take action against various politicians and officials of the outgoing regime for what it had then alleged would have been involved or been instrumental in the commission of various criminal offences.
Police inquiries were conducted and prosecution was initiated in various cases for alleged wrongdoings that they would have committed while in office. These were considered to be inimical to the economic and financial interests of the country, besides giving it a bad name on the corruption scale.
Before charges could be laid, the police through its appropriate agencies had to carry out investigations, compile the evidence to build up the case-files and present them to the Office of the DPP (ODPP) for a decision to prosecute or not. One of the politicians involved is the former Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam, for which reason the cases have received high-profile attention.
By the by most of the cases against him have been dropped. The latest development concerns what has become known as the Betamax affair, in which the alleged offences were ‘of bribery of public official, forgery, conspiracy and related offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Public Procurement Act.’ Navin Ramgoolam was provisionally charged along with former Minister Anil Bachoo, Mr Veekram Bhunjun Company Director of Betamax Ltd and three other defendants.
In a statement issued by the ODPP at the beginning of this week, a ‘no further action’ has been advised as follows: ‘After careful consideration of the evidence arising out of the investigation and in the light of the opinions of the senior officers, the DPP has decided that the case does not meet the evidential test of reasonable prospect of securing a conviction under the Guidelines for Prosecutors and has accordingly advised a no further action.’ (italics added)
The ODPP is not bound to give any explanation for its prerogative of arriving at a decision based on its own deliberate judgement, but for some time now ODPP has been doing so through statements motivated by a spirit ‘of public disclosure and transparency’, expressed as follows: ‘In view of the considerable public attention which has surrounded this matter, the DPP considers that this is a fit case for his above decision to be explained, in a spirit of public disclosure and transparency.’
What is important from the citizen’s viewpoint is that, as the statement indicates, a) there is an established procedure at the ODPP to analyse the case-file presented to it by the police, consisting of a team of three senior law officers, and b) the DPP has to be satisfied, in accordance with the ODPP Guidelines for Prosecutors, that the evidential test of reasonable prospects of securing a conviction be fulfilled.
This is nothing new, for another high profile case – that of Cehl Meeah – also caused consternation when the then DPP decided on no further action. But finally the country accepted the verdict as it was in line with the DPP’s prerogative under the Constitution. It will be recalled that no public statement was then issued to explain the DPP’s decision.
The current, new practice of the ODPP to issue public statements in specific cases is no doubt a salutary development, as it gives the people confidence in the robustness of the country’s institutions.
While the outcome of the remaining two or three cases against the ex-prime minister is awaited, the other aspect relating to this series of dragging him into the public space begs a question as to the intention of the current regime. Inasmuch as it has the right to meet its electoral promises, and the accused also to defend themselves, the public would certainly want to know whether the objective is to have him jailed and out of the way, or to so shame him in the public eye that he is finished politically. This is clearly a double-edged weapon, and the government must obviously knowingly be taking the risk associated with it.
What is troubling, though, is that in the meantime while the elephants are fighting, it is the grass underneath their feet – the common man — that is being crushed in these times which are difficult enough already. The sooner this is over, therefore, the better it will be for the country, for we cannot afford to waste precious more time in addressing all the pressing problems and challenges that are looming. At the end of the day, it is also about government accountability to the people. Unfortunately, we have seen that successive governments indulge in practices which they had decried in their predecessors. Can there at least be some sense of magnanimity if not of culture?
As regards Betamax, beyond the matter of acquisition of a medium sized container vessel for the carriage of petroleum products, what should be of major concern is whether the deal with Mangalore Petroleum was beneficial to and represented a better deal for the country, taking a long-term view. To the best of our knowledge, we have never been able to obtain a ‘political price’ for our petroleum requirements from the Arab countries despite the breast-thumping of different ministers in successive governments about their “privileged relationships” with the Arab sheiks — that is, a special price out of consideration for Mauritius. What must be openly shared by way of information, in the same spirit of public disclosure and transparency, is whether we did obtain a political price because of our close historical and emotional ties with India, which all its leaders have always respected.
On the other hand, noises were made at the time as to whether a construction company had the expertise to transport fuel. If you don’t have the expertise, you source it, nationally or internationally – this is what all companies worth their names do. If we go by this logic, then no company should diversify its portfolio. Or perhaps, as in the case of energy, the issue is one of preventing new entrants from competing in the sector and doing everything possible to obstruct? Where is the level playing field that we keep hearing about then?