Historian Dr. Walter Rodney was the victim of a State-organised assassination on June 13th, 1980 and this could only have been possible with the knowledge of then PNC Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into his death has found.
In the most detailed examination to date of the near 36-year-old mystery that deeply divided the country and stained the image of the PNC, the three-person inquiry, headed by Barbadian QC Sir Richard Cheltenham, also found that the late soldier Gregory Smith carried out the killing and he was then spirited out of the country to French Guiana in an elaborate operation spearheaded by the Guyana Police Force (GPF) and the Guyana Defence Force (GDF).
The two-year-old Commission, which has since found itself enmeshed in controversy with the APNU+AFC government, in which the PNCR is now a major player, also cited testimony during its hearing to conclude that the cover-up extended to the unwillingness of the police to investigate obvious leads in the killing of Rodney, moving girlfriends of Smith overseas and covering all traces of the presumed assassin.
According to the report, which has been seen by Stabroek News, Smith’s return to Guyana at various points and the signing of documents under the authority of the late Police Commissioner Laurie Lewis, who had previously been the Head of Special Branch, was further evidence of the depth of the conspiracy to kill Rodney and cover the trail leading to the intellectual authors.
The report will pose a major challenge for the government whose main constituent APNU – which includes the PNCR – had taken a hostile position towards the CoI, which had been appointed by former PPP/C President Donald Ramotar in February of 2014. Two other key members of the government, the AFC and Rodney’s party, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), would likely have more sympathetic views to the findings of the report. The PNC has always denied responsibility for Rodney’s death.
The report was delivered over a week ago to the office of the Attorney-General, after the Commission was unable to perform a scheduled hand over to President David Granger.
After months of hearings that were eventually curtailed by the APNU+AFC on assuming office in May last year, the CoI report stated among its significant findings that “Given all the relevant facts, events and circumstances set out in the Report, we unhesitatingly conclude that Gregory Smith was not acting alone but had the active and full support, participation and encouragement of, and/or was aided and abetted by the GPF, the GDF, agencies of the State, and the political directorate in the killing (of) Dr Walter Rodney.”
It then alighted on Burnham, who for decades had been publicly believed by the WPA to have been behind the killing of the academic and grass roots politician, who had begun to attract mass gatherings which were seen as threatening the PNC’s grasp on power.
“Dr Walter Rodney was a man of large and significant stature both in Guyana and beyond at the time of his death. He could only have been killed in what we find to be a State organised assassination with the knowledge of Prime Minister Burnham in the Guyana of that period. It was a controlled society and Burnham had a large and detailed knowledge of whatever was being done by the state and its agencies,” the report asserted.
The Commission, which also included Senior Counsel Seenath Jairam of Trinidad and Tobago and QC Jacqueline Samuels of Jamaica said that there was prima facie evidence that the late Lewis and other senior members of the Disciplined Services “had significant roles to play in the conspiracy to kill Dr Walter Rodney and the subsequent attempt to conceal the circumstances surrounding his death.”
It further said that given the manner in which the country was run, allied with threats that had been issued by Prime Minister Burnham, who passed away in 1985, “we conclude that Prime Minister Burnham knew of the plan and was part of the conspiracy to assassinate Dr. Walter Rodney.”
The CoI lamented that the premature termination of the Commission prevented those who had been identified within the report as being engaged in the conspiracy from testifying and resisting this finding. As a result, it said that no firm and specific finding was being made on their roles beyond what was indicated.
On the question of the device that killed Rodney outside the Camp Street prison on June 13th, 1980, the report said that it accepted that Smith gave Rodney’s brother Donald Rodney “an anti-personnel device namely, a remotely controlled explosive in what appeared to be a walkie talkie….” At the time, it said, Smith was a sergeant in the GDF’s marine department.
“We find on the balance of probabilities that Walter Rodney had intended the walkie talkie to be a communications device which would have permitted him to be in relatively easy contact with fellow WPA activists and for no sinister purpose. The point must be made at this stage that telephones were not easily available and there was discrimination in the distribution which was controlled by a state agency and which, in all likelihood, would have been denied the WPA,” the report added.
It further accepted Donald Rodney’s testimony that on the fateful night he was doing no more than accompanying his brother to uplift a walkie talkie.
The Commission, which heard dozens of witnesses, said it was further satisfied on the evidence presented that Smith was protected by the state. The CoI cited several key occurrences. It said that within hours of the explosion and death of Rodney, Smith was whisked to Kwakwani in a GDF aircraft. Further, he was given a passport not in the name of Gregory Smith, which was the name he carried as a member of the GDF, but in the name of Cyril Milton Johnson.
“We hold that the change of name was intended to conceal the true identity of the killer of Walter and that it could only have been achieved with the cooperation and support of the passport office which was part of the Police Force,” the report said. It said that it was also significant that the Head of the Immigration Department at the material time was Lewis.
“We accept that Gregory Smith, renamed Cyril Milton Johnson, received state assistance in going to French Guiana. The choice of country was deliberate and was no doubt informed by the fact that (the) French government, of which French Guiana was a Department, had a policy opposed to the death penalty. In short, it would have been difficult, virtually impossible, to secure the extradition of Smith/Johnson from French Guiana,” it added.
The report said that the inspection of the passport form produced before the Inquiry showed that Smith, renamed Johnson, was not required to sign the form and fill in the necessary particulars.
The CoI accepted the testimony of Allan Gates as truthful for the purposes of affirming Smith’s statements to him on the killing but discounted the testimony of Smith’s sister Anne Wagner, who had tried to attribute Rodney’s killing to the WPA.
Amongst its several terms of reference was to examine whether the state and various arms, such as the army and police, were tasked with, and carried out surveillance of the political opposition between January 1978 and December 1980. Based on the evidence presented, the CoI answered in the affirmative.
“…we have no hesitation in concluding that in the face of the evidence presented that both the GPF and the YSM (Young Socialist Movement, the youth arm of the PNC) and those in command and (superintendence) of these agencies were tasked with the surveillance of and carrying out of actions against the political opposition specifically the WPA and the PPP,” it said.
The report added that it found as facts that the harassment and surveillance included killing innocent persons who were associated with the opposition; breaking up of political meetings, harassing, threatening, assaulting or beating members or supporters of the opposition; arresting, locking-up or charging members or supporters or carrying out searches of homes and other places without reasonable or probable cause.
In this section of the report, the CoI cited the concept of “party paramountcy,” which had been enunciated by Burnham and which had been analysed by historian and now President Granger, in his book National Defence: A Brief History of the Guyana Defence Force 1965-2005. It cited his section on paramountcy.
Granger wrote: “The increasing involvement of the Defence Force in party politics, a marked departure from the apparent non-partisan stance taken in the immediate post-Independence period, raised public concern about the direction being taken by civil-military relations. This pattern of politicization became more evident after the promulgation of the Declaration of Sophia on 14 December 1974, exactly 10 years after the PNC had first come to power….
“As a consequence of this thinking, political participation was positively promoted and many officers and soldiers were encouraged to become members of the PNC in the ensuing period…Similar ideas had been embraced by the GDF high command for several years and, in 1977, the Chief of Staff, Clarence (Price), appeared in military uniform before the PNC’s 2nd Biennial Congress and pledged publicly `…our loyalty and dedication to the Comrade Leader of the People’s National Congress and Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham…’ committing the Defence Force to `…following the road mapped out by the party and Government.’ This ritual pledge of loyalty was repeated in succeeding congresses up to Burnham’s death in 1985, although not by the Chief of Staff in person….”
The CoI further cited Granger’s book as saying “as a result of these measures, the civil administration was able to establish and maintain its control over the GDF. It was not felt that there was need to install civilian political agents in military units as it was thought that there was already significant support for the PNC party in the Force. This interest was fostered by the attitude of the Prime Minister who, as Minister responsible for defence, started to appear regularly at official military functions, dressed in uniform…The significance of this symbolism was not lost on the public or the troops.”
The CoI said it accepted the analysis by Granger and was satisfied that Burnham utilised this platform to assert control over the military and para-military organisations.
The inquiry report then cited a speech by Burnham, in August of 1979, which had been widely seen by the public here as the throwing down of the gauntlet to the WPA. The report said that Rodney and the WPA were attracting increasing numbers of all ethnicities at their public meetings. It also noted that the Office of the General Secretary of the PNC in the Ministry of National Development had been gutted by fire in July of 1979. Several WPA members were later charged with arson in relation to this.
It noted that Burnham, in his speech, said, “We are a party of peace, but we are not pacifists, and literally and metaphorically, we promise to match steel with steel and fire with fire.
“So comrades, let us deal now with another of them – the Worst Possible Alternative. That is what they must be known by. What does WPA stand for?
“Comrades, they had better make their wills, because so far as we are concerned, we are not asking them for quarter and we will not give them any.
“The People’s National Congress will never start violence. The People’s National Congress did not ask for a confrontation. But Comrades, as I said on Thursday, the battle is joined, no holds are barred…
“Comrades, we are now in the Roman Amphitheater. The lion and the gladiator cannot both survive; one must die, and we know that the People’s National Congress will live.”
Noting that there had been much debate about whether these words signalled rhetorical excess or were serious and threatening, the CoI report said that many witnesses who testified before the CoI were of the view that these words were a serious threat to the WPA.
On the question of earlier inquiries and investigations into Rodney’s death, the CoI concluded that any well-functioning police force would have pursued all leads to find Smith for questioning at least as the prime suspect.
“On the facts, we draw the inevitable inference that there was a collaborative effort by agents of the state to conceal and keep Gregory Smith from the long arms of the law,” the report said.
As evidence of this, the CoI cited the removal of Smith, his girlfriend, Gwendolyn Jones and their children from Timehri to Kwakwani by Captain Gerry Gouveia on a GDF craft on June 14, 1980 with the approval of the GDF High Command.
It further cited the removal of Smith from Kwakwani on June 17, 1980 to Nickerie, Suriname or some other destination by the GDF aircraft.
Also unexplained was the sudden disappearance of Jones and their children and removal to New York and the unauthorized removal of two photos of Smith from the locked desk drawer of another girlfriend, Joan Melvin, and her immediate promotion as a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“To this must be added her posting on July 6, 1980 to New York and later (ending) up in Toronto, Canada. She subsequently disappeared,” the report said.
The CoI report also cited the denial by then Chief of Staff Major General (Ret’d) Norman McLean that Smith was a member of the GDF at any time or a serving member of the Marine Branch of the GDF.
Also listed by the CoI as evidence was the unexplained disappearance of Smith’s personnel files with the GDF and his being allowed to return to Guyana at least twice without being arrested or even stopped.
The CoI report also adverted to the granting to Smith of two inconsistent birth certificates, facilitating him with passports and authorised by Lewis.
The report also made a series of recommendations, including the need to have a highly professional police force and army and the need to bolster ethnic harmony.
* This article was first published by Stabroek News.