Debate is raging over the uncontrollable amount of drugs on island, alleged planting and the Special Striking Team. We talk to Sam Lauthan, former minister and assessor on the Commission of Inquiry on the Drug Trade chaired by former Judge Paul Lam Shang Leen. Surprising but interesting views...
The Lam Shang Leen's Commission of Inquiry on the Drug Trade where you were an assessor handed its report nearly five years ago. What, according to you is the drug situation in the country today?
The situation is worse today than it has ever been.
Well, first, internationally, the mafia is always ahead of government. Secondly, once you are in the mafia, it is very difficult to get out and talk. They have a scary code. It is called 'silver or bullet'. You take the money or you take a bullet. Others call it "the suitcase or the coffin". The choice is yours. You are bound by the code of silence if you don't want to die.
Focussing on the situation in Mauritius, when you sat on the commission and worked for three full years and three months, the commission submitted a report and made recommendations, how many of those have been implemented five years later?
Very good question! Sometime in 2020, when Zouberr Joomaye, the then government spokesperson on the issue, was asked the same question you are putting to me at a press conference, he replied: 70%. A couple of weeks later, the person responsible for the Methadone Programme was asked the same question and he answered 50%. Lately, when the minister of health, Kailesh Jagutpal, was asked the same question, he said, "We have reached 80%".
What is your figure?
Look, we made around 460 recommendations. Even assuming the best case scenario, that they implemented 80% of that. That still means that there are 92 recommendations, that is 92 loopholes, which they have not yet been implemented five years later! In the meantime, hard drugs got into the country hidden in gas cylinders as the traffickers knew that these are not checked. And I don't think it was the first time. I think this might have happened several times before. As a matter of fact, in Montagne Zako, they discovered 32 gas cylinders that had been cut into two! Why? What was inside? Take also the tractopelle: 90 kg of cocaine! And the importer of the heavy-duty machinery is nowhere to be found?
Why? Where could he be hiding?
I don't know. They should find him.
Coming back to the recommendations, one of the most striking one was the dismantling of the Anti-Drug and Smuggling Unit (ADSU). As you know not only didn't that happen but the prime minister went out of his way to congratulate them for the 'fantastic work' they are doing? Do you feel that was a slap on the commission's face?~
I was disappointed but, at long last, four and a half years after the submission of the report, we have witnessed a complete restructuring of the ADSU. I sincerely hope it will be for the better.
By restructuring, you mean creating an offshoot called the Special Striking Team?
It is good that you mentioned the Special Striking Team. Many people, including journalists, think there is a conflict of interest between them and the rest of the ADSU. In fact, we need to have this sort of team. You know, the mafia uses guns, violence and so on. We need people who have the guts to counteract that. I personally would go further and say that I wish to see at least 10 such striking teams all over the island to reinforce the efficiency of the ADSU vis-à-vis the mafia. I don't know about the planting.
Isn't that central to the issue we are discussing?
I don't know whether they have been planting drugs or not but they have made a lot of seizures. There might have been situations where the investigating team was 200% certain that a particular person was a trafficker but could not find him in possession of drugs. In such cases, the unit of the ADSU might have resorted to planting but still I am totally against this practice.
And these people that the Special Striking Team are 200% sure are drug traffickers are all political opponents?
I cannot comment on those cases and these are in court anyway so we can't talk about them. However, I am satisfied that there have been many drug seizures.
Which leads one to ask: how much deadly stuff is entering our borders unnoticed or encouraged...
Of course! I am not denying that. As in the case of the cylinders, there must be a lot of drugs coming in.
When the commission's report came out, many people close to the MSM party were flagged. No one that we know close to any other party was pinpointed by your commission. Why?
(Laughs embarrassedly) Good question! Let's take the case of a member of the government and at the same time a lawyer who used to visit 40 prisoners from different yards at the same time. You cannot do that as in those meetings, there was exchange of information, SIM cards, drugs, money etc. We condemned that very strongly.
Do you mean these people were helping in the drug trade?
Yes, of course! They may unknowingly facilitate such trafficking practices. Drug traffickers always try to hire the services of lawyers and other officers who are close to the government in place. They infiltrate the government.
Talking about infiltration, a convicted drug boss stated in front of your commission that he had given money to Geanchand Dewdanee, to allegedly give to the prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, so that his jail sentence is reduced. And it was reduced by the Commission on the Prerogative of Mercy. Pravind Jugnauth said he was going to testify before the commission to clear his name. But he didn't, did he?
Yes, it's unfortunate that Pravind Jugnauth, who had informed us without us summoning him, that he would come and depone ended up not coming.
Should he have come?
Of course! Not only to clear his name but also to report on the malfunctioning of the institutions under him.
Why didn't you call him?
We didn't have the power to call him, otherwise we would have. I had many questions to put to him.
Like what precautions he is taking about the people who are close to him and who are involved in drugs. He may or may not know that they have contacts with the mafia. Also, he was accused by Veeren of having been given money, which he denied. He might have pocketed it or he might not have been given it. Dewdanee might have taken the money and kept it. We would have tried to find out. There are many such people including businessmen and political agents who like to publish their photos standing by the prime minister which they might use to show people that they are so close to him or other ministers with the idea of extorting money from traffickers. They may or may not hand over the money to the prime minister or ministers.
Your report was subjected to several judicial reviews. How do you feel about that?
Those who have challenged the findings in their case have a right to challenge them in court if they wish. But I must highlight that, apart from a couple of paragraphs which the Supreme Court ordered us to strike out from the report, the findings of the commission were never put into question.
Maybe, but nothing has happened since...
We asked for the authorities to enquire but we are still waiting for the police to start the enquiries.
Today, the country is polarised. Between those who think alleged drug traffickers are presumed innocent until proven guilty and those who think they should remain in custody until the trial. On which side do you stand?
It is common knowledge that an accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. So, I am against the practice of keeping people in custody pending trial because there have been so many cases where the accused have been found to be innocent after spending eight to 12 years in custody. How on earth would the state compensate for lost years of their lives and such long separation from their families?
The prime minister has raised a big controversy by accusing "some institutions" of hindering the war on drugs. Do you agree with him?
It's up to the prime minister to clarify matters in the public interest and it's up to him to use the powers vested in him by the constitution to redress the prevailing situation in the name of all the victims of substance abuse and their families.