“The public is disillusioned, and there is now a growing perception of fear, especially with regard to freedom of speech and public safety”

Interview: Dr Michael Atchia

* ‘The recent open tug of war between the ODPP and the Police does not augur well for our law-and-order situation and our criminal justice system’

* ‘When working properly, the criminal justice system can be an incredible tool for holding guilty parties accountable. When it doesn’t work, people’s rights are violated’

Dr Atchia is a senior Mauritian consultant in the Environmental Education sectors and has been a Programme Director at UN Environmental Program in Nairobi from 1986 to 1996, responsible during the same period for the ‘International Environmental Education Programme’ of UNESCO/UNEP. He is also outgoing President of the Mauritian Academy of Science and Technology and member of the Democracy Watch Mauritius. We thought it appropriate to have his views on various topics that have been hogging the limelight in recent weeks together with more specific recommendations on the environment front.

Mauritius Times: As a member of Democracy Watch Mauritius (DWM), what’s your “independent and non-partisan” reading of the mood of the people here these days? Most Mauritians have concerns these days about the rising cost of living, but do you think that they are also concerned about the state of our democracy or that it could be under threat?

Dr Michael Atchia: At the level of the DWM, we have asked this key question: ‘Where do the crises originate?’, and we have proposed possible answers to that question. We are of the view that the people and organisations which do not abide by the law are one source of the problem. Government institutions which do not stick to the rule of law are responsible for their own poor rating. Wrong decision-making by the Executive adds to the crisis. One has to read the annual report of the Director of Audit to be shocked by the waste of millions of public funds without the culprits being held accountable.

As regards the Audit report, Democracy Watch would like to know whether Section 110(1) of the Constitution has been respected in regard to the recent appointment of a new Director of Audit. We learnt from the press that the Leader of the Opposition has complained that he was not consulted. We have not seen any communiqué from the President’s Office or the PMO stating the facts. Should the citizens rush to the Supreme Court to file a complaint? At the end of the day, we should be asking this question: Do we know where we are heading?We believe that such laisser faire attitude can be harmful to our democracy.

* Some people suggest that there is an evident mood of anxiety and fear among the population, who perceive a policy of repression being imposed by the authorities. Do you think that’s a correct reading of the present situation, or is it all being made up by the media, written and broadcast, with their daily feeds about the bad things happening in our society?

I totally reject this “all being made up by the media” excuse. We have a superb, diverse and responsible media which indeed plays its role, fully reflecting the current situation in the country and informing the public as to what is going on. An A+ to our diverse media: printed press, private radios and online papers like your respected Mauritius Times. An A+ even to MBC-TV, which reflects very well the ruling party’s and government’s position. They have done so à outrancewhen Navin Ramgoolam was in power and continue to do the same thing under Pravind Jugnauth. Except that it’s not what the MBC Act specifically prescribes!

The Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), published every two years, is the most comprehensive dataset measuring African governance performance. It constitutes a framework for citizens, governments, institutions, academics and business to assess the delivery of public goods and services, and policy outcomes, across Africa. The number one position of Mauritius (out of 54 African states) in this Index of governance is a good reflection of our situation. We score 74.9 out of 100.0 in Overall Governance, ranking 1st out of 54 countries in Africa, while the African average was 48.9, and that for Eastern Africa stood at 46.0.

When citing this ranking for Mauritius, there has often been a reaction from some UN colleagues: ‘Compare your country with Scandinavia, with Europe, with NorthAmericaif you want higher standing. I have vouched in some previous articles of two models which I admire: Finland and Singapore. Both have very different approaches, with Finland being truly democratic, with the participation of citizens at all stages of governance. On the other hand, Singapore is autocratic but stands at the top of the world in terms of governance, planning its future all the time, with its citizens’ full participation, but true to say left with no choice as to do so or not to do so.

Mentioning Europe as a standard, just see what has happened in France these last few days, as a result of one police incident and the earlier riots a few months backover the age of retirement. The riots which have spread throughout France and its departments, including our neighbour, Reunion Island are terrifying. We need to draw appropriate lessons as to what makes good governance and stability and what does not. 

* In any case, it does not help when the Prime Minister himself, as the best-informed citizen locally, referred some weeks back to the infiltration by the mafia – presumably drug mafia – of certain key institutions- a statement which he again repeated last Saturday at Lallmatie. The PM did not reveal the names of the mafia-infiltrated institutions nor what action he would be taking to neutralise any such infiltration, but he should know what he is talking about, shouldn’t he?

The PM is the CEO of the State and is, of course, the person who gets the most comprehensive and thorough information. Mafia infiltration is very bad indeed, and it has to be combated as the government is hopefully trying to do. But one determining element is the choice of people to fill key posts in all instances.

Far too often today (and during the mandate of the previous government as well) the nou-bann factor took precedence over competence, honesty and willingness to abide by the rule of law. Some such people did and still do think they are protected and are “above the law”. We must absolutely change that nou-bann culture deeply rooted in all political parties who have governed this country since 1968.

A key point often made by DWM after each general election is contained in this phrase: ‘Ou finneeli par enn parti, mais aster qui ou finne vinne PM… ou PM tousdimoune.’ That is, affiliation to a party should not prevent the elected Prime Minister from looking at and working in the best interest of the people.

* ‘The credibility of our institutions is at stake. The recent open tug of war between the DPP’s office and the Police Department does not augur well for our law-and-order situation and our criminal justice system. If the laisseraller continues, other vital institutions like Parliament and others… may become ineffective.’ This is what Democracy Watch says in its latest bulletin. If we are in the midst of a crisis and ‘governments often like to listen to their own voice’, how do we get out of it then? Through regime change?

Is the credibility of our institutions at stake? We have an excellent democracy, and in the past when difficulties between institutions have arisen, they have been solved thanks to the initiative taken by those concerned to get together to iron out misunderstandings as to each one’s respective roles, leaving us with a true and functional democracy. i cannot say the same for a majority of the 54 independent states of our continent, africa.

It is true that the recent open tug of war between the Office of the DPP and the Police does not augur well for our law-and-order situation and our criminal justice system. If the laisseraller continues, other vital institutions like Parliament and others, which do not, in public opinion, function as they should, may become ineffective. The public is disillusioned, and there is now a growing perception of fear, especially with regard to freedom of speech and public safety.

How do we get out of this situation then? How far can the Constitution protect us? Can the judiciary give us all the protection measures that are enshrined in the Constitution? In some countries like UK and India, judges have maintained a long-standing tradition of impartiality and fearlessness. The quality of their judgment reflects a profound understanding of the law, the social fabric, the various institutions, and the national issues. Their judgment enriches the jurisprudence of their countries and serves as a welcome guidance for judges in other countries. So, it is and has been for a long time in this blessed country! But there is also the time it takes to obtain redress from our justice system.

At times, it can be rapid, but we have also witnessed recently some very lengthy delays – thus making true the saying “justice delayed, justice denied”. One excellent example of swift delivery of justice concerned the condemnation of the rapist of a young girl of 11, a tourist from India. The verdict took only a few days! (L’Express, 20 June 2023). That prompted us to express appreciation as follows:

‘Democracy Watch adresse ses démocratiques félicitations aux fonctionnaires ayant concouru à un verdict aussi express. Cela nous renvoie aux jours bénis hélas coloniaux quand moins d’une année séparait les crimes les plus odieux au verdict pédagogiquement réparateur de nos tribunaux et magistratures, rappelant à tous que le crime ne doit pas payer dans la colonie Maurice et que le plus tôt tout coupable est arrêté. Ensuite confronté avec succès aux preuves policières retenues contre lui, sans planting, ni posting, dûment sanctionné par une justice enfin rendue en notre nom souverain, détenu à des fins réparatrices, et plus notre population se sent en sécurité et encline à faire confiance à nos autorités et institutions.’

* If we go by the crime statistics, as revealed by the PM, last Tuesday, in Parliament, the Special Striking Team is not only chasing the so-called “narco politicians”; it has carried out 60 arrests in connection with 47 cases. (There has been no condemnation to date though.) Moreover, exhibits have been secured in respect of 30 cases related to drugs with a total estimated street value of Rs 606,849,714. Even if that may sound reassuring, the allegations of “drug planting/posting” remains a matter of serious concern…

By definition, planted evidence is ‘the type of evidence that has been changed, or deposited at a scene, to make it appear as related to the accused party. For example, samples of blood or saliva, stash of notes, drugs, fake documents, etc., can be planted at crime scenes. The aim: to get an innocent or targetted individual wrongly accused/convicted, while the guilty go free’.

Planting is a criminal actionindeed, because it’s so difficult to disprove. It is so difficult to defend oneself against evidence from a concrete prohibited/offensive/ illegal object/weapon/document/substance/information found in your house/car/ office/pocket/garden/cupboard/mattress or other personal location.

One very specific action is the “throw down”, which is the planting of a weapon at a crime scene, used by the police to justify shooting the victim in self-defence, and thus avoid possible prosecution for manslaughter. But we have to be cautious because the fake cry of ‘planting’ has been used by drug dealers and others when caught with direct evidence at their place.

Police officers are tasked with identifying and investigating crimes. But in mostly very rare cases, officers may plant evidence for a variety of reasons:

  • Feeling pressure from superiors to solve a case quickly,
  • Feeling certain a suspect committed the crime but lacking the evidence to support it,
  • Believing that the suspect has committed other offences and deserves incarceration whether or not they committed the particular crime they are investigating,
  • Political reasons or corruption.

The question that arises is what can be done to prevent such situations?

One obvious answer is the careful vetting of recruitment/promotions/assignments as well as continuous monitoring of anyone who is given legal authority to search people or premises. Not just police officers but others such as anti-corruption officers, custom and immigration officers, inspectors of various denominations and such others.

When working properly, the criminal justice system can be an incredible tool for finding the truth and holding guilty parties accountable. When it doesn’t work, people’s rights are violated, and innocent people can end up in jail.

While most law enforcement officials perform their duties honestly and honorably, mistakes and sometimes instances of intentional misconduct do happen. Similarly, if another police officer, judge, or lawyer discovers the police planted evidence, then they have an ethical obligation to bring that information before the court.

* You have often written about the need for making Mauritius independent of fossil fuels and submitted a number of proposals thereon. What distance would you say we have travelled so far?

A fleet of electric vehicles plus the metro will ensure our mobility when petrol becomes too expensive or is not available. And to the consumer a drastic reduction in his/her “petrol” bill. Fortunately, the CEB is already planning for solar charging stations for such vehicles.

In 2014 there was only one Nissan electric vehicle available. Today many vehicles manufacturers make hybrid and electric vehicles, such as Nissan itself, Renault, Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, BMW, Jaguar, Mahindra, Peugeot, Chevrolet, Citroën, Fiat, Honda, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz, TESLA, etc.

My fourproposals are:

  1. Electric vehicles imported duty-free.
  2. Democratise the import of zero emission vehicles with a subvention of Rs 200,000 per vehicle, limited to one par family. We already give subventions for solar water heater, why not for cars?
  3. When batteries will be more efficient and cheaper, we can assemble electric vehicles here, including (using the latest technology) convert old secondhand petrol vehicles into electric ones. Also, as from right now all duty-free vehicles authorized for civil servants would have to be electric cars.
  4. Increase of 20%, then 50%, of custom duties on all petrol and diesel vehicles imported.

The Minister of Finance in his last two budgets has indeed taken appropriate financial measures to encourage the import of electric vehicles. Even a new all-electric ‘filling’ station has just opened and a major paper and project on the use of biomass has been launched. These measures form part of the preparedness for the future (not just the 5 years of a mandate) but for the next decade and the next. We really have really an obligation to do so… before we are caught with petrol becoming too expensive, then not available to minor importers such as Mauritus, then finally unavailable, as this non-renewable resource becomes completely exhausted.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 7 July 2023

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