Let no one be untouchable

Trinidad Guardian Newspaper Editorial
April 25, 2006

Yesterday’s conviction of former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday on charges that he knowingly failed to declare a London bank account to the Integrity Commission signals the political death of a man who has spent most of his professional life in the service of his country.

That a 72-year-old man who served T&T for five years at the highest level should end his political career in disgrace should be seen as a salutary warning to all politicians that crime does not pay.

And there should be no doubt in the minds of even the most fervent of Panday’s supporters that yesterday’s finding of guilt by Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicolls will forever tarnish Panday’s contribution as an attorney, trade unionist and politician.

Even if the conviction is overturned on appeal by the Privy Council, the stain of yesterday’s summary judgment, for hiding an offshore account, will remain.

Panday can look forward to years of legal battles as he appeals yesterday’s decision—battles which will drain his finances.

He can also look forward to the ignominy of being required to vacate his seat in Parliament in five months, which will mean the loss of the political power and prestige which came with his position as Leader of the Opposition.

In that five-month period—during which he will be subjected to the understandably severe picong from those who were on the receiving end of his silver tongue for so long—Panday will be required to “cease to perform his functions” as a Member of Parliament.

The loss of political power will, no doubt, lead to the rapid desertion of the Panday cause by the political carpetbaggers and careerists who used to fawn over him and call themselves his friends.

And, on top of everything, he faces the prospect of a two-year jail term with hard labour.

Whether that sentence was appropriate punishment for failing to declare a foreign account he shared with his wife will be for the appeal courts to decide.

T&T will never be served by honest politicians if the dishonest ones are allowed to escape with suspended sentences, nominal fines or, worst yet, spending the sunset of their years in luxurious exile as John O’Halloran and Francis Prevatt did.

The imposition by the Chief Magistrate of one of the most severe sentences possible is an indication that at least some members of the judiciary still understand their role as impartial arbiters of blind justice.

For far too long, the perception has been fuelled in this country that there is one law for the rich and powerful and another for the poor and downtrodden.

This perception, propagated by some dubious decisions by certain members of the judiciary, has caused many members of the public to view the judicial system with extreme cynicism.

The reason that Panday’s conviction came as a surprise to many was because of the fact that he was a powerful man and one with enough financial means—either his own or from his friends—to be able to afford a top-flight English QC.

Panday’s conviction, therefore, sends the unmistakable message that justice will take its due course even for those previously thought to be untouchable.

The conviction of the former Prime Minister comes at a time of unprecedented legal and jurisprudential focus on white-collar crime, which for many years went unheeded.

The police and Director of Public Prosecutions must always be mindful that while charges have been laid against two ministers in the current Cabinet and several leading officials in the former administration, there needs to be the appearance of fairness.

The fairness arises as a result of the hiring of a top-class team of expensive lawyers, led by an English QC, to prosecute Panday for a white-collar crime—a prosecutorial luxury not afforded murderers and kidnappers.

If the same attention to detail and expense shown in the Panday case were also demonstrated in the prosecution of murderers and kidnappers, the State might have more success in bringing blue-collar criminals to justice.

The need for equality of treatment poses a burden on the DPP to ensure that perpetrators at all levels face the wrath of the law.