Why has the case of Bruneau Laurette become so controversial?

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Bruneau Laurette posted bail after the DPP did not object to the district court granting it.

Bruneau Laurette posted bail after the DPP did not object to the district court granting it.

A pro-government social media has accused the new Director of Public Prosecutions Rashid Ahmine of being involved in a politico-legal plot with the Labour Party to release the social activist on bail. Why has Laurette’s case invited so much controversy? And how is the pro-government narrative seeking to hit three birds with one stone?

1) Bail and the MSM

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Rashid Ahmine has lodged a police complaint against a pro-government social media page Sun TV News after it accused Ahmine of being involved in a politico-legal plot to free Bruneau Laurette on bail – the latter currently faces multiple charges including drug dealing after the police allegedly seized 40 kilos of hashish from his car, which Laurette insists was ‘planted’ by the police – with lawyers from the opposition Labour Party, a senior magistrate at Moka District Court and former Chief Justice Eddy Balancy. The Bar Council has also organized a special session on March 21, to discuss Sun TV’s attack, which some lawyers have construed to be an attack on the whole judiciary. Since then, police commissioner Anil Kumar Dip has also criticised the decision to release Laurette on bail as creating an “evil precedent” that would see alleged drug dealers jailed for holding smaller drug quantities in prison pushing for bail too.

Regardless of the trial itself, the manner in which this controversy has been pumped up by a pro-government social media site plays on ground that is familiar to the MSM Party led by Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, which has long sought to step onto the territory of the judiciary when it comes to drug crimes and bail. The problem goes all the way back to 1986: fresh off the Amsterdam Boys scandal and a drug commission report, the then-MSM-led government of Sir Anerood Jugnauth passed the 1986 Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA), section 46(2) of which prevented the granting of bail by the courts when it came to certain drug crimes.

The Supreme Court has long struggled with attempts of MSM-led governments to take away from the judiciary the power of granting bail in drug cases.

It wasn’t long before this law came under legal challenge. That same year the Supreme Court heard the Noordally case. In its judgement, the court pointed to the dangers of a government just coming up with laws to try to deal with a political hot potato: “Since we are faced, not with an exercise of parliament’s wisdom, but with an illustration of its misusing its powers, no doubt through being ill-advised, we are entitled to intervene to set matters straight.” What the Supreme Court decided in 1986 was that whether or not to grant bail was a matter for the courts, and not for politicians in parliament, to decide and stated that section 46(2) was “void and of no effect”. While it attacked the DDA of 1986 for trying to take away the powers of the courts to grant bail in certain types of drug cases, the court did leave open the possibility of the constitution itself being changed to take this power away from the courts.

Which is what two successive MSM-led government proceeded to do. In 1994, the then-government passed section 5(3A) of the constitution (Act No. 26 of 1994) to deny the courts the power to grant bail in certain drug and terrorismrelated cases. This paved the way for a new version of the DDA to be passed in 2000 – when the MSM returned to power – which once again took away the power of the courts to grant bail in certain drug cases. Once again, this was contested in court, this time in the Khoyratty case. The case involved the seizure of 3 g of heroin with the police telling the district court that it had no power to grant bail in the case. The Supreme Court did not take kindly to the constitutional amendment stating that, “although it is complaint with section 47(2), (having admittedly been voted with three-quarters majority) is in breach of section 1 since the imperative prohibition imposed on the judiciary to refuse bail in the circumstances outlined therein amounts to interference by the legislature into functions which are intrinsically within the domain to the judiciary”. In 2006, the Privy Council backed the view of the Supreme Court. With the courts firmly insisting that not even a constitutional amendment can take away their powers on bail, this has transformed attempts to browbeat the judiciary from overt changes to the law or the constitution to attempting to bring back the bad idea through public pressure. In a conference at Balaclava on June 27, 2008, then Supreme Court judge Eddy Balancy highlighted four main threats to the bail system: the police’s over-zealousness to arrest people, the inability of poorer detainees to come up with the money to post bail, the state taking a long time to come up with cases in court and what he termed as “uninformed public opinion”, which in cases deemed to be serious put pressure on the state and judges to deny bail in certain cases. This last point was important because in May of that same year, the opposition in parliament clamoured for re-introducing restrictions on bail – including through a new constitutional amendment – following the Caterino case when a French steward accused of importing drugs fled Mauritius while out on bail. Knowing the legal history of such a move, the government desisted from falling into the same trap once again, instead leaving it to the police to systematically oppose bail motions in drug-dealing cases, but leaving the ultimate decision to the court. A pro-government social media page attacking the decision to grant Laurette bail is just a newer iteration of the same problem.

2) Laurette and the DPP

The second bird that this controversy looks to hurt is Laurette himself. The latter has had a strange political trajectory since 2019. Initially an agent of MSM candidate Kavy Ramano – and working alongside other candidates such as Joe Lesjongard and Subashnee Mahadeo – by mid-2020, Laurette had broken with the MSM and spearheaded massive protests over the government’s handling of the Wakashio oil spill – Mauritius’ worst ecological disaster to date. By December that year, Laurette formed his own group, Linion Sitwayen Morisien (LSM) and began moving closer to the parliamentary opposition parties, Labour Party, MMM and PMSD. 

In February 2021, Laurette and these parties held a joint rally before the opposition entente itself blew apart after MMM leader Paul Bérenger raised the question of who the opposition should back as its prime ministerial candidate at the next election. By March 2021 Laurette stated that his goal was to poach the MMM and PMSD electorate, with the Labour Party using Laurette to pressure the other two parties into an opposition deal. In the same way that Nando Bodha and Roshi Bhadain were being used by the MMM-PMSD bloc to pressure Labour into a deal. 

When this too floundered, Laurette shifted between joining causes such as opposing mandatory vaccines and fuel price rises alongside ACIM headed by Jayen Chellum to ultimately coming together with other smaller non-parliamentary groups – Rama Valayden’s GREA, Dev Sunnasee’s 100% Citoyen and Jean Claude Barbier’s group in an alliance dubbed Linion Pep Morisien (LPM). Soon enough in August 2022, Laurette broke with them as well. When he was arrested for drug dealing following the 40 kilos of hashish found in his car – which he maintains was ‘planted’ by the police – both government and opposition parties initially vied to demonstrate Laurette’s links with the other. So having a pro-MSM social media page pointing to a ‘conspiracy’ involving the opposition Labour Party to get Laurette out on bail is not a new tactic either. 

The battle between the DPP and the rest of the executive looks set to continue under Rashid Ahmine who succeeded Satyajit Boolell.

Nor is the inclusion of the DPP, Rashid Ahmine, in this ‘conspiracy’. That the police would attack the DPP’s decision not to object to Laurette’s bail should not come as a surprise. Both these institutions have been at loggerheads for quite some time with the DPP being criticised by the police in recent past for dropping cases against the government’s political opponents and most seriously, in 2020, of ordering the police to reopen an investigation into former police commissioner Mario Nobin for allegedly facilitating convicted drug dealer Mike Brasse in getting a passport. 

For supporters of the government, attacking and discrediting the DPP would go a long way in the ruling MSM’s attempts to walk back the DPP’s autonomy since 2015: first by forcing the DPP’s administration back under the Attorney General’s office – undoing a separation that came about in 2009 following the Mackay Report and the Law Reform Commission’s proposals – then coming up with a series of laws in 2015 removing the DPP’s monopoly to decide on asset seizures and moving that power to the ministry of Financial services and good governance; attempting to arrest Ahmine’s predecessor Satyajit Boolell in the Sun Tan case; and coming up with a new law in 2016 to set up a Prosecution Commission that would give the government ultimate say over criminal prosecutions by the state rather than the DPP. That attempt ended after the PMSD left the government, depriving it of the super-majority needed to push the law through. 

Since then, the DPP’s Office and the government have sniped at one another; the DPP questioning the power of the government to extradite individuals in the Uricek case and ordering the opening of an investigation into the episode; and the government accusing the DPP’s office of leaking part of a judicial report into the 2020 murder of former MSM agent Soopramanien Kistnen. The DPP reacted to that with a statement saying that it “will not allow itself to be intimidated, in yet another attempt to curtail its independence and fearlessness to uphold the rule of law in our democratic society”. What the current attacks of pro-government supporters online show is that their problem did not stop at Satyajit Boolell, but rather have extended into Ahmine’s tenure as well. It’s the office itself, and not who happens to hold it, that is the problem. 

The current controversy is being fuelled on grounds that the MSM has long stomped on and is just the latest episode in the government’s problem with those it has long opposed; trying to whip up public opinion by implicating people and institutions it is at loggerheads with over a power of bail that it has repeatedly tried to strip away from the judiciary was perhaps too good an opportunity for supporters of the current government to miss.

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