Can you be a great businessman and a law-abiding citizen as well?

Apropos ‘Lagesse enfin derrière les barreaux’

In an article (‘Lagesse enfin derrière les barreaux…’) which appeared in l’express of Wednesday 28th, Jean-Mée Desvaux has looked into the recent arrest and detention overnight in police cell of business magnate Mr Thierry Lagesse.

The latter is involved in a case in which a returning resident from the UK, Ashish Kumar Seeburrun, would have availed himself of applicable duty remissions on the import of “his” luxury car from the UK for personal use here in Mauritius. It turns out that the Mauritius Revenue Authority (MRA) has realized that the car has not actually been in the personal use of Mr Seeburrun but that it would have been in the custody of and been used by Thierry Lagesse. In which case, the returning resident would not be entitled to the duty remission that was given to him.

Moreover, the case would involve the MRA into a shortfall of duty paid amounting to Rs7.2 million which would have applied to the normal import of such a costly car. The authorities would therefore have come to the conclusion that Mr Seeburrun and Thierry Lagesse would have hatched up a conspiracy so as not to pay the due amount of customs duties on the import of the car. This is why Mr Seeburrun and the agent responsible for importing the car into Mauritius have both been held in police custody to identify whether the three men would have been conspired to carry out what looks as a case of Customs fraud.

In the words of Jean-Mée Desvaux, Mr Thierry Lagesse is an owner of Groupe Mon Loisir (GML), the topmost business group of Mauritius with an annual turnover of Rs 27 billion, employing directly 3000 to 5000 persons. He is, in the words of Mr Desvaux again, a white Franco-Mauritian and asked, referring to the present case, the further leading question as to whether and how many cases of fiscal fraud actually land up with the police.

According to Jean-Mée Desvaux, the police would not only have arrested Thierry Lagesse for having offended the law (which is right, according to him) but they would have employed their discretion to detain him (a white man) in police cell overnight and thus inflicted upon him the necessary dose of humiliation in that capacity, it being argued that the reason for which police detention was claimed, notably that he might have influenced other witnesses by contacting them if free, does not hold any water. There is no statement by Jean-Mée Desvaux, as to whether the police would have equally enjoyed the idea of humiliating two non-whites, Seeburrun and the importer agent of the car, by putting them behind the bars even before they did so with Thierry Lagesse. There is thus an open question on this side of the matter.

Jean-Mée Desvaux goes further in his interpretation of events to state that Thierry Lagesse would not in fact be the first white man to have been detained by the police but that there have been others before him. In other words, the detention of Thierry Lagesse would be a Pyrrhic victory for the police, if that was how they had looked upon it. He states that, in the pre-independence days, some white Mauritian entrepreneurs chose to leave Mauritius for Africa with their money despite having to pay stamp duties on transfers of capital as was applicable in those days, something which are not in place today.

He further states that Thierry Lagesse’s business group already has a firm footing in Africa where it is easier to make larger profits than in Mauritius. He concludes by asking whether it would be a risk worth taking to put in jeopardy the jobs of those employed by Thierry Lagesse’s group at a time there are nearly 50,000 unemployed in Mauritius. In other words, GML might do the same thing as those independence-day entrepreneurs chose to do by quitting the country for other shores.

We do not know whether the police chose to place Thierry Lagesse under detention, as they did with Seeburrun and the importer agent of the car, for deriving sheer pleasure to see those men behind bars, even if it was for short periods. We assume that police know better why they have done so. But was there a need to employ, on the assumption that Thierry Lagesse would have been detained due to his skin colour, the intimidating device which indirectly states that actions by the police, which have not been proven to be arbitrary and/or selectively applied, would threaten the jobs of our people in the employ of Thierry Lagesse’s group?

This incitement to disband economic activity from the country for having been put in police custody overnight should not have been generalised, or even contemplated. The police are not putting every entrepreneur behind bars; all Thierry Lagesse needs to do to clean up his standing is to prove that, while being an important entrepreneur, he has also been a law-abiding citizen. That should be the end of the matter. Things should not be blown up out of proportions and nobody, irrespective of skin colour and status, should feel that he/she would be not accountable in law.

* Published in print edition on 30 August 2013

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