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Everyone should be equal under the law

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Tue, Feb 14. 2012

The majority of Vincentians, it is fair to say, have a deep emotional connection with the Argyle international airport project.

This project, which, by the last estimate, will cost us $652 million to complete, is being built with funds raised from the sale of crown lands, the generosity of individuals, groups, companies and foreign governments, and the sacrifices of Vincentians and others, during this time of economic hardship.{{more}}

Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, who is the driving force behind the project, traverses the globe looking for money to build the airport, a feat which many Vincentians thought they would never see in their lifetime. As recent donor to the project, businessman Mr Denzil Bacchus put it, the prime minister has a lot of “guts” in undertaking this difficult venture, and deserves the support and cooperation of all in his effort to see this project through.

It was therefore with feelings of great betrayal and hurt that we learnt last week that money had been stolen from the project.

Communications Officer at the International Airport Development Company (IADC) Jennifer Richardson-Herbert, in a press statement, said that junior staff members of the company had colluded to defraud the company of $63,744. In relative terms, this sum is small, but the quantum matters not. Every cent pilfered or wasted at that project impacts directly on all who have been, and are, sacrificing, to see the project come to fruition.

The Vincentian public will therefore be looking on with keen interest to see the outcome of the investigations into these allegations.

Onlookers might however be excused for skepticism, as similar investigations into allegations of misappropriation and fraud at government departments and companies, in the past, seem to quickly die an unnatural death, without the cases going the distance in our justice system.

Contrast this with what happens when poorer, less influential citizens find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Just last week, we carried a story about a man was sentenced at the Kingstown Magistrate’s Court, to six months imprisonment, for having in his possession travellers cheques and a cellular phone, believed to be stolen. The items were stolen on February 4, and by February 7, the accused had been found guilty and had taken up residence at Her Majesty’s Prisons.

Oh that we would deal with allegations of white collar crime with such dispatch!

One of the presumptions of our legal system is that of equality before the law. This equality is not to be limited to how one is treated or dealt with when one appears in court, but must of necessity extend to all aspects of the justice system.

Of course, we do not expect persons to be prosecuted where the evidence does not suggest that it is likely that a conviction will be secured. What we do expect, is for there to be fairness, transparency and openness in investigations, and on conviction, for a penalty, in keeping with the seriousness of the crime, to be imposed.

The decision of the International Airport Development Company (IADC) and their Communications Officer to issue a press statement on the alleged fraud must therefore be commended, as it is a welcome departure from the usual practice of denial and cover-up, when government assets cannot be accounted for.

We hope that the openness and transparency demonstrated by the IADC will continue, and will be emulated by other government companies and departments, when faced with similar situations.

As the Prime Minister often says, St Vincent and the Grenadines is a nation of laws.

Our laws must therefore be enforced without fear or favour. Whether or not someone is a brother, sister or friend, if they have committed acts which engage the criminal justice system, then let the chips fall where they may.

Seeking to protect and guard some citizens from being investigated, arrested, charged or prosecuted is really an interference in the criminal justice system.

The integrity of our criminal justice system must not be undermined by selfish acts. All offenders should be equally pursued.

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