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The responsibility of all past MPS is to explain

Sandy Grant
The Sunday Standard’s front page story of September 28 – ‘Govt. Sets Up Terrorism Spy Agency To Hang Suspects’ stated without preamble, that, ‘government is in the process of setting up a counter–terrorism spy agency that will see suspected terrorists executed and sentenced to life imprisonment without being given a fair trial.’

This news did appear like a bolt from the blue, certainly as far as I was concerned although the proposed law had been, apparently published as a Bill sometime last year. 

Perhaps you had taken the chance to visit far away places during the Independence week and therefore missed the Sunday Standard’s report which spelt out in disturbing detail the central elements of this new legislation. Courts may not, for instance, question the grounds for declaring a person to be a terrorist; anyone who knowingly becomes a member of a terrorist group may be imprisoned for life; an investigating officer may, without a warrant, arrest anyone who he suspects is likely to commit an offence; similarly such officers may apply to the courts to tap into private phone conversations; a person who fails to report someone suspected of terrorism may be imprisoned for five years; trials for an offence under the Act shall be held behind closed doors. And so on. The report concludes with the comment from the Minister of Defence, Justice and Security that the government may decide to establish a new agency, in addition to the DIS, to implement the provisions of the Act which, says the Standard, ‘were ‘passed hastily without input from M.P.s during the last session of Parliament.’  Yet another agency and at what vast unregulated cost!

How come that all our newspapers contrived to miss out on the gazetted Bill and on this feat of getting new legislation passed through Parliament hastily and without debate? Seemingly we have been there before but with the one obvious difference that the government has learnt from its experience with the Securities Act and ensured that this time around, there would be no possibility of public debate.  One sound reason for allowing debate both in Parliament and in the streets, however, is to help wrinkle out flaws which may not have been spotted in the drafting stage and to recognise that some provisions are being repeated from earlier legislation but perhaps with slightly different wording – the power to access private phone calls and e mail correspondence, for instance, would seem to be already well covered.  A major concern, however, must be to see how the word ‘terrorist’ is defined and on this point I recommend that everyone should read Thabo Masokola’s excellent comment in the Guardian (October 3), ‘Counter-Terrorism Legislation Relevant But…’  in which he explains that one man’s

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terrorist may be another man’s patriot. That particular point can be illustrated by my own experience with apartheid South Africa.  Someone, years ago, was able to check my file in the relevant office in Pretoria and found that I was described as, ’a communist or a fellow traveller of the communists’. Both supposed statements of fact were, of course, total nonsense but in all States ruled with ruthlessness and without conscience – would historians today describe the apartheid governments of Verwoerd, Vorster and Malan as terrorist governments? – it is the charge which matters, not the truth. It is strange and saddening to reflect now on a Botswana which, not so long ago, was routinely described as peaceful and peace loving. Those days, it seems, are gone for ever, because the government obviously believes, for whatever reason, that we are in a permanent state of severe threat both from within and from without and that, as a result, it needs more and more draconian powers to respond effectively.  Yet there will be many who may now wonder what convinced it that its already extensive powers were insufficient for dealing with what was presumably a newly perceived threat? If this was something which threatened all the states of Southern Africa it could have happened that the intention was to bring this country into line with its neighbours? But then the government would have had no problem in explaining this situation when the Bill was before the National Assembly. But then such questions must have occurred to all MPs before they hastily and without debate, passed it into law.  

Having done so, they do now have a responsibility to inform the voting public about the detail of the new law, why they believed it to be in the general public’s best interests and why they approved it without debate, as indeed their predecessors had done with the National Security Bill? If they truly believe that this kind of legislation is introduced in our best interests would they also take the time to explain why the commitment of the government to the fundamentals of democracy and an open and independent judiciary were so easily set aside? Can any of those MPs who approved this legislation disagree with Masokola when he says that, ‘we can only entrust our hope on miracles that civil liberties and divergent political opinions would not be eroded’?



Etcetera II

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