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From parliament to prison

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It is a common saying in our society that, “Time is longer than Twine.” The recent story of the imprisonment of the former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago was very revealing, and leaves much to be desired. Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicolls sentenced Basdeo Panday to two years hard labour in a decision has attracted much attention regionally.

Why is this not just to be seen as another conviction? {{more}}

The answer resides in the nature of the office formerly held by Mr. Panday, and the type of charges being brought against him. Whilst on the one hand the story of Nelson Mandela depicts a fight against apartheid which shows us a walk from the prison cell to the seat of the president, that of Basdeo Panday contrasts that of Nelson Mandela in every respect, being a walk from parliament to prison.

This not only reflects badly on all who hold public offices in the region, but goes directly to the trustworthiness of many who have access to the public purse. Notwithstanding the aforementioned, the private sector also experiences very serious corruption.

There is no doubt that in the over 40 years of service given to his country be it as prime Minister, opposition leader or trade union activist, Mr. Panday would have championed many causes. However, the name that once received commendation for good work is now associated with disrepute.

The word INTEGRITY suggests a strong sense of morality, up-rightness and honesty, which should be the hallmark of all workers, be it within the public or private sector, and for all levels of workers. However, history has recorded countless instances when many have fallen way short of this mar, with St. Vincent and the Grenadines and many of our regional counterparts being no stranger to such bad faith. One must take note that when charges of corruption are made against persons who either held or presently hold high office especially one as esteemed as the office of the prime minister, this tarnishes the reputation of ones country both regionally and internationally.

However, the fact that the State dared to prosecute Mr. Panday is evidence that we can have confidence in our justice system in proving that no one is about the law. At a time when we speak the language of integration generally, and more specifically about its offshoot – the Caribbean Court of Justice and the Caricom Single Market and Economy – our system of judicial governance in the region must ensure that it maintains the public’s confidence, that it is guided entirely by the rule of law.

In so doing, the issue of integrity in public life must be carefully considered, and accordingly addressed with a great sense of urgency if our objective of building a region with almost negligible elements of corruption is to be ensured. The absence of carefully drafted integrity legislation, and the enforcement of such legislation in some mini-state jurisdictions, can be extremely detrimental to the development of ones economy, politics and society. Nevertheless, it is very interesting to assess some of the reasons why some leaders are practically avoiding legislating on matters of Integrity in public life. Many welcomed the initiative taken by our Legislators in St. Vincent and the Grenadines to bring to the fore the Integrity In Public Life Bill 2005. The policy that informs this piece of legislation refers to the need for the establishment of a supervisory body to ensure integrity in public life, and the necessity to monitor the accruement of assets and liabilities, income and interests in relation to property and other matters of that nature. There is no doubt as to the importance of this piece of proposed legislation to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It is time enough that all holders of public offices be held seriously accountable for their actions, and punished accordingly if they transgress.

Mr. Panday has been able to obtain bail so far, and has presently appealed the decision of the chief magistrate. In light of all that has happened, one should never make mockery of the mistakes of another, but there are indeed many lessons to be learnt from the recent events in Trinidad and Tobago.

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