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Law and order: The slow wheels of justice

10 juin 2024, 15:20


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Law and order: The slow wheels of justice

DPP Rashid Ahmine and CP Anil Kumar Dip (R) meeting in the DPP’s office at Garden Tower in May 2023.

In the context of the Budget 2024-25, the two arms of the law – the police force and the judiciary – have been awarded funds to fulfil their mission of providing security and safety on the one hand, and justice on the other hand, to all Mauritian citizens. However, recent events have shown that their actions may have been at cross purposes thus breeding mistrust of the public in our justice system and complaints from those in charge of upholding the law…

“Nothing new under the sun”

In his Budget speech last Friday, the minister of finance, Renganaden Padayachy, elicited “government’s commitment to uphold law and order and provide security and safety to Mauritian citizens”, by allocating to the police force a 15 percent of its budget from Rs 10.8 billion to Rs 12.6 billion. This entails the recruitment of another 1,000 police officers; the construction of a Disciplined Forces Academy to house all training institutions and the Police Headquarters; construction and upgrading of police stations; renewal of vehicles; an automated biometric identification system, to be linked to a criminal attribute database; acquisition of an offshore patrol vessel to ensure maritime security; and the acquisition of a new coastal surveillance radar system to monitor vessel movements.

Moreover, in its “crusade against drug trafficking”, government is providing a sum of Rs 350 million to enhance the enforcement capacity of the Anti-Drug and Smuggling Unit; and to strengthen vigilance by customs at our airport and seaport borders, it is investing in a whole-body scanner and two baggage scanners at the cruise terminal; two additional baggage scanners at the SSR arrival hall; two scanners for loose cargo at the parcel post office in Rodrigues; and 5 additional drug test equipment for rapid testing of illicit substances at port and airport.

Former DCP and NSS chief Dev Jokhoo comments these measures for the police force as “nothing new under the sun”. “The work of the police is no longer rewarding. Instead of investing in the offshore patrol vessel or a new coastal surveillance radar system, I would have preferred the money to be invested in basic police equipment, like gas masks and helmets, things that not every cop has today. If ever there is a joint operation with the SSU where it fires gas, the other units will have to run for safety.” Furthermore, an independent observer points out that this budget does not quell the frustrations of “honest and dutiful policemen who feel underpaid, bypassed for promotions and downtrodden by those involved in corruption and even drug offences or work in dilapidated police stations or must travel for hours across the country to their place of work”. It should be noted that a cohort of 1,000 police officers earmarked for recruitment in the 2023-24 budget should be starting training shortly. However, the Disciplined Forces Service Commission may have been faced with a dilemma since some 300 applicants did not meet the age and physical criteria to qualify for this position.

“Cosmetic alterations”

In the same vein, minister Padayachy, in his Budget speech, vowed government’s “continued efforts to improve access to justice and offer better services to all court users and employees”, by making provision to upgrade court premises including 2 district courts; equip the New Court House with a new air-conditioning system and enhance its connectivity; and appoint a president for the Children’s Court, a Senior District Magistrate and additional Judicial Research Assistants and Court Officers with a view to reducing the number of outstanding cases and improve delivery of judgements, digitalisation of justice and accelerate court administration.

Senior Counsel Sanjay Bhuckory comments these measures: “The budget provides for the renovation of two buildings and the air conditioning of another. The judiciary deserves much better than these cosmetic alterations. I note with dismay that nothing has been planned for the creation of a separate Court of Appeal. Mauritius is the only country in the world where the same body of judges sits at first instance and on appeal. It is high time to put an end to this aberration. The judiciary has been left behind because it seems that the priorities are elsewhere.”

At the beginning of the year, cyclones, flash floods and intense heat forced the courts to close down, thus exacerbating the existing backlog of cases and forcing the judicial authorities to juggle deadlines, schedules and priorities as rearranging the calendar remains a complex task. Overall, about 50 Supreme Court cases and 100 cases in district and intermediate courts had to be deferred resulting in additional stress for all parties involved, especially those who have been coming and going for years. Add to that lack of support staff that leads to overwork, in sometimes difficult working conditions. Enough to make some magistrates throw the sponge…

Notwithstanding the fact that cases are often delayed because police enquiries take a lot of time and some aspects of the case are overlooked, thus leaving no choice to magistrates but to give verdicts that may bear grounds for judicial reviews as in the recent “fake constituency clerk” case against former minister Sawmynaden.

Only the DPP can initiate an appeal in this case and, in its blog titled, “Debatable police inquiry leads to debatable judgment”, Democracy Watch Mauritius comments: “It is not known if Simla Kistnen’s lawyers have formally written to the DPP and whether the request for appeal will be entertained. If the DPP eventually moves for an appeal the case will probably be heard after the next general election, which means that Mr Sawmynaden will continue to enjoy the benefit of doubt”.

The tug of war

The constitutional case between Police Commissioner (CP) Anil Kumar Dip and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Rashid Ahmine, has become a major sticking point in the country’s judicial and political landscape, highlighting institutional tensions and issues of power and authority in the exercise of justice. The DPP’s decision to seek a judicial review of the presidential pardon granted to CP’s son, Chandra Dip may have triggered it. In February 2023, CP Dip contested the DPP’s decision not to appeal the bail granted to Laurette, then Singh, Bissessur and Dabeedin, stating that the DPP had overstepped his authority. However, this struggle goes far beyond individual cases and touches on the very foundations of justice and law enforcement in a state of law.

The resolution of this conflict, whatever it may be, will undoubtedly mark a turning point in the country’s jurisprudence and the understanding of the constitutional powers attributed to each of these high offices. Meanwhile, the DPP is defending its powers over the creation of the Financial Crimes Commission, arguing that “A fundamental principle of our democratic state, as set out in Article 1 of the Constitution, is that the administration of criminal justice, including the power and process of prosecution, be isolated from political influence”

Politics and judicial neutrality

The presence of Assistant DPP Roshan Santokhee on political platforms alongside MPs of constituency No 6 (Grand-Baie/Poudre d’Or) had raised persistent questions and once again put the office of the DPP in the limelight. The latter had referred the case to the Judicial and Legal Services Commission (JLSC) for appropriate action. The central question remains: can a public servant engage in politics? The recommendations of the JLSC, the only body empowered to take sanctions in cases of violation of the code of ethics, will be crucial, especially since Santokhee has been involved in high-profile cases with political scope – Laurette, Dabeedin, etc. The outcome was under close scrutiny not only by legal professionals, but also by the public at large. We now have confirmation that Santokhee has been interdicted, pending further enquiry. It is also rumoured that he might resign to stand as candidate in the forthcoming elections…

The powers of the JLSC under section 86 of the Constitution are broad, including the appointment, confirmation, discipline and removal of judicial officers in the event of non-compliance with the code of ethics. Senior Counsel Bhuckory had put forward “the need to put an end to the incessant exchanges between the Executive and the Judicial, which give rise to a perception of cross-contamination, thus violating the separation of powers”. According to Bhuckory, “a separate avenue of recruitment and promotion for judicial and legal officers, is needed to preserve the integrity of the judicial system”.