Interview – Touria Prayag – Editor-in-chief, Weekly — “We should all fight for our worst enemies to have their rights respected”

* ‘In a real democracy, institutions work independently of politicians and are stronger than those in power. And institutions are only as independent and as competent as the men and women heading them’

* ‘Can you imagine David Cameron telling the police not to use provisional charges against his ministers? These same charges which have been and are still being used against everyone else?’


 

Touria Prayag’s book ‘Provisional Charges’ was launched last Friday. This book by the Editor-in-chief, of Weekly is about the human stories behind the debate on arbitrary arrests and provisional charges. “It goes beyond the legal controversies about arrests and provisional charges and gives a voice to the victims – ordinary, decent citizens who are at the receiving end of what could be described as the tyranny of the State. Arbitrarily arrested and detained, their basic human rights snatched away from them and their freedom withdrawn, they suffered bitter humiliation and abuse of their privacy.” We spoke to Ms Prayag about this antiquated procedure of ‘provisional charges’ adopted under emergency provisions in colonial times, and never repealed. Read on.


Mauritius Times: What is your book about: is it more about how the provisional charges slapped on unsuspecting victims have affected their lives, or is it intended to be an intellectual exploration into the reasoning of the legislator, about the merits or demerits of this judicial provision?

Touria Prayag: The book is primarily about people at the receiving end of the provisional charges practice: the way they were treated, their feelings before the arrest, during the detention and when they were released on bail.

These are ordinary decent hapless citizens whose lives were overturned overnight when they were arbitrarily arrested and detained and saw their basic human rights snatched away from them and their freedom withdrawn. They suffered the worst imaginable humiliation and violations of their dignity and intimacy.

This is the focus of the book. However, the topic of the provisional charges practice also crops up and is dealt with in a non-technical way. The hapless victims also talk about what it means to them and how it has affected their lives.

* What do the personal accounts of distress you have put together in your book inform us about the extent of use or abuse made of this judicial provision?

The abuse is evident from every story narrated in the book. The extent of it is difficult to assess as there must be thousands of people out there who must have been subjected to it.

I focused on a dozen cases but as the story unfolds, these characters talk about their experiences and the people they met while in detention. And you come to realise that there are so many more.

The most important thing is not even the numbers but the practice itself. In all the cases I have narrated, there has not been a single conviction!

* We are told that our courts and defending barristers are very exacting on real evidence to be produced before an accused may be convicted. Would that be good justification for police to seize and detain for as long as possible so as to adduce evidence of the quality courts would admit, and hence the perpetual quest by the police to be allowed to keep detainees for longer periods ever?

After detaining Ish Sookun for 10 long days and subjecting him to all kinds of humiliation, what evidence did they adduce? What evidence did they adduce against Farihah and Hassenjee Ruhomally who were locked up for having shared a post on their Facebook wall?

The police did not have to look far. They could just read the papers. We were giving them evidence of the innocence of these people right from the beginning. L’express produced CCTV footage showing Ish Sookun sitting at his desk when the supposedly terrorist mail was sent to the Prime Minister’s Office from a cybercafé which Ish had not set foot in for years. We published the unpaid bills in l’express and in Weekly in the Ruhomally case. Why didn’t the police start their enquiry there?

Come on! Of course, they need to produce evidence. This is un État de droit but they have to find enough evidence to have a reasonable suspicion before they go and arrest someone. And a minister’s statement is not evidence nor is it the holy bible. In the cases I have mentioned, the police are still looking for evidence as they have not yet returned to the victims the laptops they seized.

It’s easy to hide behind the need to “adduce evidence”. Go and find the evidence first – or at least something that looks like it – before you detain, humiliate and release people on bail! Otherwise, anybody can say anything against anybody and the detention centres would be full. As a matter of fact, they are, according to the protagonists in the book.

* Would one be justified to think that there might be a masochistic pleasure derived by some in authority when they can – after a sheer (perhaps mischievous) statement made to the police – go and apprehend a person on ‘provisional charges’?

I honestly fail to understand what kind of sick mind would derive pleasure from arresting an innocent person, having his house raided, taking him away in a police car, sometimes handcuffed, and having him strip naked in front of police officers to search his private parts! If we have such people in this country, they badly need psychological help. And this kind of treatment is systematically reserved to those who are either perceived to be close to the previous regime or have no political connections. You will have noticed that Rakesh Gooljaury, for example, walked in and out of the CCID offices on a Sunday and went home to sleep in his own bed. The press photographers could not even snap a single photo of him walking up or down the now-notorious CCID steps.

And talking about this, do you realise the amount of time and resources mobilised to subject innocent people to humiliation and human rights violations? A dozen policemen, several police cars, sometimes police dogs, metal detectors, in one case even a helicopter! To arrest people for a Facebook post! Or a crime committed 20 years ago! Seriously? What time and resources are left for the police to target real crime?

* It is only when the influential and the mighty – or erstwhile mighty – in the land fall victim to such practices that their cases are brought up into the limelight by the press. There could be numerous poorer souls who might have been unjustly victimised but whose tribulations have gone unnoticed. Justice seems to come with influence and a price. Is that so?

That justice is costly is nothing new. As far as obtaining justice is concerned, one can’t compare a suspect who has a bright, experienced lawyer to one who has a lawyer commis d’office. It is perhaps also true that there are many people rotting in detention centres waiting for a court of law to hear the charges against them. Some people who read the book were more touched by the stories of the people the protagonist met in detention centres than by those of the protagonists themselves.

However, one should not dismiss raising questions about abuse of human rights even when they happen to the “erstwhile mighty” people. In Mauritius, far too often, we tend to deal with very important issues emotionally rather than rationally. No one in a democracy should have their human rights ripped away. Even if they we hate them, despise them, wish to see them dead. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere! We shouldn’t stand for it and we should not wish it on our worst enemies.

* Justice is not only costly, it can also be slow and complicated, and one is likely to spend quite a few days in custody before being brought before the Bail and Remand Court for a hearing. Shouldn’t there have been a process to ensure that any arbitrary abuse should have been checked and curtailed more expediently?

Exactly! Those who are bent on abusing and humiliating others play precisely on the fact that justice is slow. In modern dictatorships, the methods they use to finish off their enemies are no longer through a bullet as is the case in old dictatorships. In modern dictatorships, you tarnish your enemies’ reputation and tire them out with one court case after another. No need to leave any blood trail. By the time a court of justice has decided that they are innocent, they will have lost a few years of their lives.

The protagonists in the book all ask the same question: Who is going to give us back what we lost? The answer is: Unfortunately, no one! Years of your life are gone and you probably will never get back the reputation you had. If you take the former Governor of the Bank of Mauritius, he has lost one and a half years of his life, lost his friends, his housekeeper, who did not want to work for a ‘thief’ and a ‘money launderer’ and now that all the charges against him have been dropped, who cares?

The harm has already been done and some sick people’s thirst for revenge must have probably been quenched.

* There have been many instances of provisional charges slapped against politicians – mostly adversaries – and people associated with the latter, which have hogged the headlines these past years. But these also tell a bigger story: it’s about how the ‘independence’ of institutions in our country can be made highly malleable and, indeed, how the institutions could be ‘instrumentalised’ to achieve purely political ends – at least that’s the general perception. Your comments?

You have put your finger on a crucial issue. In a real democracy, institutions work independently of politicians and are stronger than those in power. And institutions as they say are only as independent and as competent as the men and women heading them. And there is no way we can have independent institutions for as long as we have political nominees heading them – chosen according to the criteria you and I know – and political interference. The worst poison in any democracy.

Can you imagine David Cameron telling the police not to use provisional charges against his ministers? These same charges which have been and are still being used against everyone else? Have you ever heard a minister in the House of Commons telling a Member of Parliament, “I will send your case to my colleague minister to investigate?” Have your ever heard another MP publicly stating that the government and the police had granted immunity to some self-confessed liar and that the DPP spoilt the fun?

The general perception is that institutions in this country are not working independently of the powers that be. They were not in the past. They are not today. And it is really a short-sighted view as the moment the government changes, those same institutions start working against those who are no longer in power. When there are independent institutions, the first to benefit are those in power today and who may no longer be so powerful tomorrow. What is so difficult to understand about this?

* Too bad that those who can and should do something about the system with a view to curtailing abuse made of provisional charges refrain from doing so until such time when they find themselves at the receiving end when they see its nefarious effects more objectively from the other side of the fence, isn’t it?

Yes, exactly, and the whole cycle continues. Everyone benefits from democracy, everyone benefits from independent institutions and everyone benefits from living in a country where there is utmost respect for human rights.

In other words, we should all fight for our worst enemies to have their rights respected. That automatically entails respect for our own human rights. That is the idea I hope the book will convey. And that is the simple notion that our politicians, across governments, have failed to understand.

* The judiciary has demonstrated time and again that justice will not be short shrifted; it will be served without fear or favour like it has been done in many cases involving suspects unjustly charged provisionally by investigating agencies. A dose of judicial activism could perhaps. What do you think?

The judiciary is our saviour and the one thing which gives hope to the victims of arbitrary arrest and abuse of the provisional charges. Many of the victims speak highly of the judiciary and are patiently waiting for their cases to be heard.

The problem is that in the meantime their lives are hell on earth. And those who are convinced that they are innocent – and that those who had them arrested know that – feel so dejected by the number of years of their lives which will be wasted before the courts of justice hear their cases.

* Advocacy journalism or journalism activism is a relatively new genre in the profession. The question is: can a journalist also be an activist for a cause without compromising the core editorial values of journalism – and, not the least, those of his/her paper? How far can s/he go in this direction without jeopardising those values?

The values of any paper should be looking for the truth and highlighting it and informing readers about what is going on without fear or favour. In that sense, there is no inconsistency between fighting for the right causes and working for a media group.

My colleagues and I are fighting for the same cause – that of a just, egalitarian society, free of the ills of communalism, racism and vendetta. I do not therefore see any difference between my values and those of the company I work for. If I did, I would perhaps not be working for it or they would perhaps not have kept me on.

* There’s always the risk of getting rubbed by the authorities when the latter feel that they have been rubbed the wrong way by the press. ‘Risques du métier’, isn’t it? But increasingly so these days?

As you said, that is the risk you run as a journalist. I don’t know if things are worse today than they were in the past. Powerful people do not like criticism and that’s it. They expect a hefty salary, first-class travel and junketeering, scrumptious fringe benefits, unchecked power and at the same time a quiet life where everyone bows down to them. So they all hate those who don’t. How they deal with that depends on their personalities and the options they have. Now, as a journalist, if you want favours or are scared of the wrath of those who are in power, then you perhaps should not be in this job.

Equally, we must understand that we have our own faults, limitations and imperfections and that we should be open to criticism as a result. A lot of it. Many people are shocked, for example, by the comments I allow on my blog. Some are direct, personal insults. I don’t care. I am in the arena – giving blows. I don’t expect people to take them lying down. They have the right to hit back. The criticism – at times abuse – can hurt but it does not put me off. Those are the rules of the game. You either accept them or you don’t play. And believe it or not, I have learnt so much from bloggers by continuing the game. And I am still learning.

* At the end of the day, the politicians are all the same across the board – they don’t really mean what they say, once in the chair?

Yes, all politicians leave their ideals in the voting centres once the election results have been proclaimed. But they keep them safe there as they come in handy when they lose the election.

* Published in print edition on 10 June 2016

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