GDF has no right to detain civilians – legal expert

Arrest of cameraman, villager

…army’s actions not supported by Police, Defence Acts

Contrary to the coalition Government’s utterances, ranks of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) do not have carte blanche to arrest civilians. In fact, the army is expected to allow the police to take a leading role in any joint operation that brings them face-to-face with

Christopher Ram

This is the firm view of a legal expert whom this newspaper spoke with yesterday, and comes on the heels of recent pronouncements made by Minister of State, Joseph Harmon, at a recent press conference. Harmon had expressed support for the army’s explanation for detaining a Capitol News cameraman and a Chenapau resident while they were traversing the Kaieteur National Park (KNP).
Debunking the notion that the army has any inherent right to arrest civilians, the legal expert stated that the only instance in which the army can take over administering law and order against civilians is in a case of a state of emergency.
“The army has no authority, no power to interact with civilians,” legal expert said in an invited comment. “If they want to interact with civilians, they have to do it under a joint operation with the police, where the police are the dominant partner. It’s only in a state of emergency that the army takes control.”

No threat
While noting the importance of protecting Guyana’s patrimony for future generations, former Bar Association President Christopher Ram expressed incredulity about what may have prompted the arrest of a cameraman.

One of the GDF officers at the Kaieteur National Park

“With respect to the Capitol News cameraman,” Ram said during a recent interview with this publication, “I fail to see what danger a camera can pose, and I would expect that the Press Association will take a strong position on this matter. The press is, with justification, considered the Fourth Estate, and must not be silenced.”
In addition, Ram noted that using soldiers to do a policeman’s work, in the circumstance, violates both the Police and Defence Acts. The attorney-at-law explained that soldiers are not appropriately trained.
“First of all, I believe all Guyanese are strongly proud of Guyana and its pristine marvel. It is part of our national patrimony, and no one should abuse, threaten or cause it any damage. We all have a patriotic duty to protect it for generations coming after us.
“Having said that, law and order cannot be pursued by unlawful means,” Ram continued. “The use of soldiers violates both the Police Act and the Defence Act. The law does not ordinarily allow the army to be used in routine police work, and soldiers are not so trained.”
Govt ‘green light’ to army
The Government’s support for the GDF to detain civilians was made known by Minister Harmon on Friday last. During a post-Cabinet press briefing, Harmon stated that he has not gone beyond the army’s report to question the reasons behind the detention of the local media worker, but he expressed faith in the army’s explanation.
“I believe the army did give an explanation for this, and I believe the explanation is a reasonable one in the circumstance. I have not gone beyond it to question why this worker was detained, but the sense I got from the army report is that the person was in an area he should not have been.”
He added that the army was conducting an operation in that area, making it unsafe for civilians to traverse. But when asked whether there is a specific law giving the army this power, Harmon said, “Of course the army can detain somebody in an area that is an operation area. It is a limited detention, until such time as they are handed over to the civilian authorities. That can be done.”
In fact, Section 81 (1) of the Defence Act, Cap 15:01, states that “any person subject to military law under this act found committing an offence against any provision of this act, or alleged to have committed, or reasonably suspected of having committed any such offence, may be arrested in accordance with the following provisions of this section.”
However, subsections two to five only reference the power of the army to arrest soldiers and officers. Throughout the act, the only persons identified as being subject to arrest are those subject to military law.
Capitol News cameraman Rudy Morris and Chenapau resident Anthony Melville were both taken into custody at the Muri Muri Landing, Region Eight (Potaro-Sipiruni). The cameraman was among a group of media workers who, two Saturdays ago, accompanied Amerindian Peoples Affairs Executive Michael Mc Garrell to the region.
They were investigating claims of illegal mining in the Kaieteur National Park, and were also there to observe unfolding events.
There had been a Presidential order for the army, in joint operations with the Police, to enforce the law which prohibits mining within the boundaries of the Kaieteur National Park.
But on Sunday, Morris and Melville used a boat to go investigate the boundaries of the park; and as they were returning, they were arrested.
Video footage emerged showing a plainclothes barefooted GDF rank pointing a weapon at Morris and instructing him to turn off his camera.
While the two men were released by the GDF ranks on the day after the arrest, Morris was brought to Georgetown three days later.
Residents of the area had complained bitterly to media operatives about the heavy military presence which has curtailed their freedom. But in the wake of public criticism of its actions, the army, in a statement, has dubbed the cameraman’s actions reckless and stupid.
Affirming that it had carried out a “thorough” investigation into the incident, the army claimed that the cameraman may have been attempting to provoke a confrontation “for the sake of sensational news.”