JUSTICE delayed is justice denied.
Monday’s discontinuance, after almost two decades, of the Piarco 3 case against former prime minister Basdeo Panday, his wife Oma, former UNC government minister Carlos John and businessman Ishwar Galbaransingh strongly demonstrates this truth.
Many have criticised the justice system in the wake of this development, pointing out how no party has come away unscathed. The State has expended millions, the accused have suffered tremendous reputational damage and the public has been traumatised by the spectacle of it all.
In dropping the case, Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard, SC, cited the unavailability of witnesses, presumed or presumptive prejudice, the public interest and, in the round, the lack of a fair prospect of conviction.
Mr Gaspard did not initiate these charges, having inherited them. But it is hard to understand how his assessment only crystalised on the eve of the matter going to trial on Monday after several years in which the very factors cited should have been evident.
We can blame the overwhelmed criminal justice system for this, but we cannot do so without attending to the real elephant in the room: this country has a problem whenever politics and the courts mix.
Scandal after scandal has demonstrated the serious consequences whenever there is the perception of meddling with the justice system by political actors or whenever such actors are brought before the courts in matters that have partisan complexions.
Our legal system needs to be reformed.
In the first place, it needs to be sophisticated enough to handle complex, white-collar cases expeditiously.
Failing this, it needs stronger guardrails to prevent matters from going on and on, oppressively, for years. It might be hard to swallow the idea of a statute of limitations, but the line needs to be drawn in a wider balance of interests.
What is most disturbing, though, about Monday’s development is how it highlights just how severely the presumption of innocence has been eroded in this country.
The cloud of a charge can hang over a life for decades in a way that becomes as punitive as if a conviction had actually been recorded.
This makes a mockery of the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty. That mockery is amplified by the reckless rhetoric of politicians who gleefully note, on public platforms, that their enemies are “before the courts.”
When there is no justice in these high-profile cases, what we end up with is a situation in which everybody is guilty while being simultaneously innocent. The very foundation of morality in public life is perverted.
Politics, Mr Panday once said, has a morality of its own. Decades later, how right he proved to be.