The Smokescreen of ‘Provisional Charges’

About a year and a half earlier, Mr Rundheersing Bheenick was replaced by Mr Rameshwurlall Basant Roi as Governor of the Bank of Mauritius (BoM) in the aftermath of the change of government.

While the handing over was still being discussed at the top level of the BoM, an official statement was made by the BoM to the police to the effect that Mr Bheenick would have taken away with himself “confidential” files from the BoM.

Acting on the statement given by the BoM, police lost no time to place Mr Bheenick under “arrest” on ‘provisional charges’ of “larceny by person in receipt of wages”. Police in quest of evidence to support the BoM statement made to them, searched his residence. They found some amount of foreign exchange (which Mr Bheenick claimed were leftover monies from per diem payments officially paid to him by the BoM when on missions abroad). The estimated amount of this ‘find’ converted into rupees was immediately made public, a million rupees, what! It helped the police level a second ‘provisional charge’ against Mr Bheenick, notably money laundering, possibly to reinforce their case in the Bail & Remand Court to keep him in punitive detention and, why not, dig up further evidence from him or strengthen the flimsy and untenable evidence they must have gathered so far.

It must be said that Mr Bheenick, during his tenure as Governor of the BoM, had not allowed the BoM’s key interest rate to drop the way some in the private sector would have liked, thus forestalling accompanying depreciation of the rupee that was the private sector’s real target. He thought this would amount to discouraging savings and be an unjust tax, in fact, on the public by instigating currency-driven price inflation. In so doing, he displeased the Minister of Finance. He did not also make friends among banks he accused of “fleecing” their customers by imposing successive numerous unjustified bank charges on their transactions or not accommodating, to the expected extent, credit demands from small enterprises.

So, when he was put under arrest by the police, the news was blazed with a flourish by a section of the local media. His overnight detention at the ill-famed Alcatraz prison cell of the police was reported as an example of the “fall of the high and mighty”. Newsmakers not only blazed it out to pin him down under their usual precautions. They also kept the headlines going, as it were, to lend moral support to the ‘provisional charges’ that had been employed to get him into police custody and, hence, into public humiliation.

It must be recalled that police were also at that time after Navin Ramgoolam. The concerned media rushed to make an amalgam between the two cases, trying to link them up howsoever much tenuously and without any proof. In the eyes of this section of the media, Mr Bheenick was as if already guilty of all that the police had ‘provisionally’ charged him with but without stating it in so many words.

Yet, it is the same press which clamours aloud against other cases where police have ‘provisionally charged’ and arrested people other than the likes of Mr Bheenick, for example, Sir Gaetan Duval on his return from a foreign trip on what proved to be trumped-up charges (apologies to Mr Donald Trump). It did not matter to the local authorities, the concerned section of the media and to the public opinion they were manipulating that it did not do Mauritius much good to cast ignominy upon someone who, irrespective of the merits of the accusations being levelled against him, had occupied a short while before the new government was installed one of the country’s highest and most respected offices.

They did not take with a huge pinch of salt the allegation made by the Bank of Mauritius in its police statement that Mr Bheenick would have “stolen” the BoM “documents” that happened to be in his custody and that it would have been his intent to deprive the BoM of them, for God knows which personal benefit! They made little of Mr Bheenick’s defence, in the case of the documents, that arrangements had already been made to ship them back to the BoM, before police landed at Mr Bheenick’s place, to the same officers of the BoM who had arranged to send them to Mr Bheenick’s residence in the first place when he was leaving the BoM at short notice. It did not occur to them to ask the BoM whether it had sought to get back, in the normal course of business, the “confidential” Board papers in question in Mr Bheenick’ s custody to which he should have been privy already for having been the Board’s Chairman.  And whether he had refused?

The consequence of all this is that a free citizen of Mauritius has been deprived of his civil liberties over such a long time on the basis of the two charges unsupported by tangible evidence. The DPP has acknowledged as much in court and the magistrates hearing the cases lodged against him have had nothing more to do than to summarily dismiss them. The ‘independent’ press which had flourished Mr Bheenick’s arrest so much at one time, played an extremely low profile at this outcome. It was more important to floor the man than to exonerate him from blame as did the courts.

Not only this, given the process, Mr Bheenick has been publicly smeared for no good cause. Unimpeachable details about his personal life have been publicly exposed by the police and the press to his detriment. This piece of news has travelled internationally to his peers in central banking and to those high ranking office-holders he must have negotiated with in favour of Mauritius in the past. No repair done, once again. The public would do well to remind itself of this kind of double standards practised by those who claim to be emanations of the purest ethical virtues.

Arguments have been made in favour of the police having recourse to ‘provisional  charges’ if only to help it ground up firmly with time the evidence of criminal wrong-doing it already holds in particular cases. But when charges of the sort are levelled, for reasons unknown, to bring ignominy upon respected citizens of the country who have held high office, the loss of private freedom due to the abusive exercise of the related power of arrest is hardly reckoned with.

Many previous governments have realized the arbitrariness of such dehumanizing arrests made to suit political or other hidden purpose. They have asked the powers of levying such unjustified ‘provisional charges’ to be removed from the police when on the opposition side. Once in power, they’ve preferred to leave the whole issue in abeyance. Newspapers have condemned this malpractice when arrests have been made of persons they would rather defend but not when those persons are not akin to them or are even looked upon with hostility by them. The political hypocrisy around employing an abusive power to bring down adversaries could not be better illustrated.

If Mauritius isn’t progressing as much as it should have, one of the reasons for this state of affairs is this type of intellectual dishonesty which colours its decision-makers across the board. It amounts to disparaging those who do not quite fit into the image of their favoured prototype, even when it is evident that an overpowering abusive state apparatus is being employed to bring them down. It also involves mercifully excusing certain others for trespassing their authority or for employing their voting power to go against the law, if they are viewed as being “on the right side of the fence”. This is poor culture, by any standards.

* Published in print edition on 20 May 2016

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