Attempts to rig 2020 elections: Footage from Ashmin’s Building during 2020 Elections cannot be found – CEO Vishnu Persaud
– as former Reg 4 Commander recalls police hierarchy “supporting” embattled GECOM official
The public hearings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the events that followed the March 2, 2020, General and Regional Elections commenced on Friday with harrowing details of the top brass of the Guyana Police Force supporting certain officials of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to disrupt the electoral process.
Additionally, it was also disclosed that none of the footage from Ashmin’s Building during the 2020 polls can be found. This was revealed during the testimony of the Chief Elections Officer at GECOM, Vishnu Persaud, who was the first witness to take the stand.
During the March elections, the Ashmin’s Building – located at High and Hadfield Streets, Georgetown – was used to house of the office of the Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica) Returning Officer – a position that was held by embattled Clairmont Mingo.
Persaud testified that upon assumption of the CEO post, he is generally required to have knowledge of where the security footage of GECOM’s operations is stored.
However, he indicated that no one seems to know about the location of the surveillance footage captured inside of the Ashmin’s Building during the elections period.
“I am not aware that any such footage is available. In fact, I did enquire [and] I was informed that the cameras were installed in that building on the instructions of the Chief Elections Officer [in 2020, Keith Lowenfield] that might have been done by a private service provider. And nobody seems to know when the cameras were removed and where the footage might be,” Persaud stated.
The CEO further told the CoI that all the computer systems that should have had such information have been wiped.
“When I assumed office in the Office of the Chief Elections Commission, where the computers which should have had information or could have had information in that regard, all of the computers were wiped clean,” he noted.
Persaud was appointed CEO at GECOM in December 2021 – months after his predecessor, Lowenfield, was terminated.
Lowenfield along with former Deputy CEO, Roxanne Myers, and Mingo were all fired they were slapped with several electoral fraud charges following their roles in attempting to subvert the results of the 2020 polls. Those matters are still pending in the courts.
After an almost peaceful polling day across the country, chaos erupted at the Ashmin’s Building after RO Mingo attempted to declare incorrect figures as the results of Region Four – Guyana’s largest voting district.
This spiraled into a series of events – most of which played out at that location on March 5, 2020, three days after election day.
On Friday, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP), Edgar Thomas, give a detailed account of those events during his testimony. Thomas currently serves as the Head of the Presidential Guard Unit of the Police Force but during the March 2020 elections, he was the Divisional Commander for Region Four and was specifically responsible for providing security at Ashmin’s Building, which included ensuring the safety of both persons in the building as well as the documents.
One such incident that ACP Thomas recalled was in the wee hours of March 5, 2020, at about 02:00h, when he received a report from the command centre at Ashmin’s Building that a GECOM staff, whom he identified as Enrique Livan, attempting to tamper with figures during the tabulation process.
The then Commander said he went to the location, where Livan was found in a room with a laptop computer and flash drive. He said he contacted Lowenfield, who arrived at the centre and continued the tabulation process. However, at that point, party agents realised that there were incorrect figures on the computer and the CEO committed to addressing the issue.
Thomas recounted that he then left the building and went back to the Divisional Headquarters at Brickdam and while there, he received another telephone call just after 10:00h, that there was a bomb threat at Ashmin’s Building.
The ACP said he returned to the location and instructed persons in the building including GECOM staff, representatives of political parties as well as election observers to vacate the building for their safety. However, he noted that only some GECOM staff complied including Chairperson, Ret’d Justice Claudette Singh.
Eventually, the police were able to trace the call to a male resident of Ruimveldt, Greater Georgetown, who is a relative of a Deputy Permanent Secretary at the time. According to Thomas, that man was arrested and subsequently charged and placed on bail.
Following that incident, the then Commander was informed by his deputy – Senior Superintendent of Police Phillip Azore – that DCEO Myers has requested additional police presence at Ashmin’s Building on the basis that an important announcement was forthcoming.
ACP Thomas told the Commission that he returned to Region Four command centre, where he learnt that Mingo had made a declaration of results and that there were police officers guarding several doors to rooms in the building. They were acting on instructions given by Azore.
“Well, the instruction was clear to me that [Azore] give them to man the door, preventing persons at GECOM – mostly political party representatives – from entering certain areas [of Ashmin’s Building,” the witness told the Commission.
He went on to say, however, that he instructed the ranks to open the doors since People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Chief Scrutineer Zulfikar Mustapha had indicated that he was in possession of a notice to be served to GECOM officials who were locked inside the room and he was being prevented by the police.
Attempts to clear Ashmin’s Building
Sometime after, ACP Thomas recalled that Myers attempted to clear out the building – something, he said, she was hellbent on doing and even regard concerns by PPP-nominated GECOM Commissioner, Sase Gunraj, over the safety and security of the Statements of Poll (SOPs) and other election-related materials.
“Ms Myers was on the upper floor… She was saying that people need to vacate the building… no reason was given at the time. She was shouting in an aggressive manner.”
“Ms Myers actually did not pay any attention to Mr Gunraj’s concern. She was more inclined to getting people out of the office… She engaged the police to get people out of the building,” he reiterated.
Thomas further indicated to the CoI that Myers then called Deputy Police Commissioner at the time, Maxine Graham, and complained that he [Thomas] was not complying with her instructions to get people out of the building.
He said Myers then turned to Azore for assistance. According to the ACP, he was sure that Azore was “supporting” the DCEO since, at one point, he [Azore] turned away from approaching Myers after coming face-to-face with him [Thomas].
Thereafter, the then Region Four Commander said that eight ranks from the GPF’s Special Branch arrived at Ashmin’s Building and he attempted to evict them since he was the most senior officer on the ground since he did not summon them or saw the need for their presence.
Moreover, the ACP noted that during a pre-election meeting with GECOM officials including Myers and Graham in February 2020, the Head of the Special Branch, Nigel Hoppie, was not there when he [Thomas] was given security responsibility for the Region Four command centre.
But according to Thomas, he felt that the Special Branch officers were “in support” of Myers’ attempt to clear out the building since she did not question their presence and that Hoppie, who has since retired, knew of their actions.
However, the then Commander contended during his testimony that “There was no need for the special branch because they were not useful to my operations.”
Nevertheless, ACP Thomas recounted that he subsequently received calls from ACP Graham and the then, Police Commissioner, Leslie James – both now retired – who were also supporting Myers’ attempts to vacate the building.
After several conversations which included him [Thomas] informing his superiors that systems needed to be in place to ensure the safety of the SoPs and other electoral materials – which were in a room with a broken door lock – before the building can be cleared, the ACP said two ranks from the Tactical Service Unit (TSU) then arrived at the location.
Again, as the senior officer at Ashmin’s Building, the Divisional Commander said he sent them away since he saw no need for them there. However, he said the ranks returned sometime after with reinforcements.
“At that stage, I reminded them that I am the most senior person on the ground… They left the building immediately… and came back with some reinforcements… 15 fully armed ranks dressed in TSU uniform,” Thomas recalled.
The TSU ranks ordered everyone out of the building, and at that point, ACP Thomas said he realized that he was no longer in charge. After failing to get onto the Police Commissioner, he said he called Graham and informed her that he was leaving Ashmin’s Building.
The following day – March 6, 2020 – when he returned to the command centre, there were heavy barricades around the building, preventing persons to gain access including parties’ representatives and electoral observers. Thomas said this was done at the instruction of Azore.
The Divisional Commander was then informed by Graham “… that I’m no longer in command of the Division. Azore is in Command and I must go the Headquarters to receive a letter.”
According to the ACP, he was informed by Deputy Commissioner Paul Williams that Commissioner James was “not pleased with my performance” and so he was being assigned to patrol duty at the Police Headquarters – a task which Thomas said he had objected to since it was not in keeping with his seniority and because he refused to work under Graham.
Thomas was then seconded to the Civil Defence Commission (CDC) for some time before being brought back to the headquarters, where he was “doing nothing”. Without an office or even a desk, the ACP said he only showed up to work twice per month.
He told the Commission of Inquiry that he felt unaccommodated and knew for a fact that he was “not welcomed at headquarters” despite serving the force for over 30 years. (Vahnu Manikchand)