Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

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Who is a political prisoner?

Standard - Ghana's national Catholic weekly

On May 26, 1984 the Attorney-General and Secretary for Justice was reported to have stated in an address to a meeting of the Ghana branch of Amnesty International that there were no political prisoners in the country except two former ministers, Mr Riley Poku and Mr Kankam de Costa, who are being held for alleged irregularities. Indeed, the Secretary for Information was reported to have repeated the Attorney-General's statement to the editorial writers of New York Times on her recent visit to the United States.

However, buried in that flattery language is the largely undefined and hardly answered question of who a political prisoner is. It is unfortunate if the Attorney General's statement referring to the current list of political detainees means what it says.

The conclusions of our investigation on some persons detained since December 31, 1981, and published on the front page of this very issue of the Standard, suggested that the Attorney General's statement is misleading: On the one hand our investigation has led to the discovery that Dr J.S. Nabilla, former Minister for Presidential Affairs and Mr Joe Hyde, former PNP member of Parliament, continue to be detained, at least at the time of writing. It is a fact well known to Ghanaians that these politicians found themselves in detention after the overthrow of the former civilian administration. On the other hand, we realise from further investigations that there have been other arrests and detentions made since January 1982. Some of these persons are mentioned by name in the front page story just referred to. Indeed, as we go to press a habeas corpus writ is pending before an Accra High Court to secure the release of some of them.

Since the government has not provided the general public with any reasons for these arrests and detentions besides what the Attorney General is reported to have given in his May 26, 1984 statement, the only ostensible reason that can be offered is that their political activities or views happen to be at variance with the position taken by the government.

We of the Standard, like many other Ghanaians, are naturally very much concerned about the continued detention of all categories of Ghanaians, both the former members of the PNP government and those belonging to the latter group. We are particularly concerned not so much with the personalities and the numbers as with the principle involved: Detention without trial is considered a very extreme political measure and as a last resort. If it must be resorted to, it is always to be accompanied with the greatest caution and be as short as possible. This is because of the danger that a person who detains an accused has the unlimited advantage of building up a case through intimidation and other forms of torture and thus assumes his guilt and does not try to prove it on verifiable evidence

Again, we must express our concern about the delays in investigation into the cases of the detainees, for example, the case of the two ex-ministers, referred to by the Attorney- General, and who have been in detention for over two-and- a-half years now. It is paradoxical that it is taking the state machinery for investigation over two-and-a-half years to investigate people who were in power for less than that period. Is the state investigations machinery not well- equipped or competent enough to handle the cases of those in detention? How long is it going to take to investigate the charges brought against the detainees, if investigation should be the pretext for their detention? And, by the way, what further investigations are needed after all these years?

It is a general principle in law - which most of us know that justice delayed is justice denied. Besides, it is an infringement of a person's right and also a violation of the African Charter and the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights to deny a person the enjoyment of certain human rights. These include the rights to move about freely and to fend for destitute dependants, as is the case of these detainees. JUSTICE DELAYED It is the view of the Standard that investigations have gone on for so long and that the detainees should be brought to court. Where the investigating bodies can establish, or indeed have established, that the detainees committed crimes against the state -b e they political or economic- we ask that their crimes be made known to them and the public. In addition, they should be prosecuted according to the laws of the land. If, on the contrary, no crime has been established against them, then we see no justification for their continued detention. In this case, we demand that they be released forthwith.

We wish to recall that some detainees have been tried and sentenced before, and that the same measure of treatment be accorded to all. Again, we have been made to believe that it was because of delays and legal technicalities in the proceedings of the regular courts that the Public Tribunals were instituted, albeit not without protestations.

Surely, the country's security is a problem for all Ghanaians. But we would like to believe, from the government's own decision to lift the two-and-a-half year old curfew and also to open the country's borders, that Ghana today is free from the bouts of crises that rocked the country barely a year ago. What other justification is there for keeping those Ghanaians in detention?

The Standard accordingly endorses the recent call by the Ghana Catholic Bishops' Conference that all those detained on political grounds be released. Apart from boosting up the government's current "pragmatic image", such a gesture will indicate how much the reputation of Ghana means to the government.

We are most hesitant to recall that this is not the first time the Standard is making such a call. The underlying principle is on the same lines as those on which we based our fight for the release of former detainees or those against whom the state unlawfully raised its mighty clutches. We sincerely believe that we speak for many Ghanaians.

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