Little India Riot COI: Minister decides AGC's role, says COI chief

WHETHER the Attorney-General should lead evidence at an inquiry is a matter for the minister who appointed the Committee of Inquiry (COI) to decide and not its members.

That was a point COI chairman G. Pannir Selvam was trying to put across to activist Vincent Wijeysingha at Thursday's inquiry into the cause of the Dec 8 riot.

Dr Wijeysingha, who was testifying at the hearing, had earlier written to the COI arguing that there was a conflict of interest with the Attorney- General's Chambers (AGC) leading the evidence during proceedings as it represents the Government. That same letter was also published by freesheet Today on Feb 17, two days before the COI was convened.

"The point I was making then - I hold it even now - is that there must be at least a semblance of fairness and justice," Dr Wijeysingha said.

He added that the AGC was the authority that decided to charge the suspects allegedly involved in the riot and was also behind the decision not to take action against the bus driver involved in the fatal accident that sparked the violence.

"I suppose the point I'm making is that the Attorney-General cannot do both things at once; represent the Government and then charge the people and then also be independent here," he said.

The issue of who should present the evidence was raised after Mr Selvam asked Dr Wijeysingha if he still felt the COI had powers to appoint "somebody else" other than the AGC to do so.

"So the point is that you are not prevented from appointing someone other than the Attorney-General... you are entitled to do so," said Dr Wijeysingha.

Mr Selvam, however, said he "disagreed completely", adding that under the Inquiries Act, only the minister is empowered to do so and "I cannot override him against that section".

COI member Andrew Chua yesterday commended the AGC team, saying they have been doing a "fantastic job". But he added that the State Counsel are just "a facilitating machinery" that ensures the process of the inquiry goes on smoothly.

"There's no way that these people can actually do anything to slant the whole process because we are the ones who are responsible for making the final decision," said Mr Chua.

Dr Wijeysingha also said he was not questioning the personal integrity of the committee members or that of the State Counsel present. But when asked if he had any issues with how the inquiry had been handled so far, he replied: "Sir, you have put me on the spot here. Can I not answer that?"

THE issue of whether lawyers from the Attorney General's Chambers (AGC) should lead the evidence during the inquiry was raised after chairman G. Pannir Selvam asked workers' activist Vincent Wijeysingha if he felt the committee had powers to appoint "somebody else" other than the AGC to do so.

This was part of the exchange between Dr Wijeysingha and the Committee of Inquiry (COI) members on Thurdday:

Dr Wijeysingha: So the point is that you are not prevented from appointing someone other than the Attorney-General... you are entitled to do so.

Mr Selvam: I disagree with you completely.

You take this case. There is one section (under the Inquiries Act) which specifically empowers the minister to appoint the (AGC)... to lead the evidence.

I cannot override him against that section (and) to take your suggestion, then I go and appoint another person... then here somebody else comes.

Do you think practically it can work?

Dr Wijeysingha: I don't think it's so much a question of practicality, sir.

With respect, I think it's a question of transparency and independence. I think also, again, with respect, gone are the days when the Government can say to us: "Don't worry, you can trust us to do the right thing."

We want to be part of the process and we want to be assured that the Government is going to do the right thing.

Mr Selvam: Are you not part of the process?

Dr Wijeysingha: No, no, I am part of the process which is why I wrote to you, sir, to express my reservations about the Attorney-General leading the evidence. And not because of the personal credentials of (Senior State Counsel David Khoo) and his colleagues (from the AGC) - that's not my point at all.

The point is that we want there to be the semblance, the appearance of transparency and independence.

Mr Selvam: I don't agree with you. But do you question the integrity (of the AGC team)?

Dr Wijeysingha: No, not at all. Certainly not. Even if I did, I wouldn't say it here... but I don't. Not at all.

COI member Andrew Chua: I guess at the end of the day the test of the pudding is in the eating of it.

So, basically, what has been happening the last two weeks, in terms of what has transpired in the court here, what you read in the papers, you were here present yourself, so do you think that that process of appointing the A-G is still a faulty process today, based on what you have seen happening in the last two weeks?

Dr Wijeysingha: I think the question is phrased wrongly, sir. The question, as you phrase it, goes to the individual integrity of the individuals here.

Mr Chua: No, I'm not talking about the individuals now. I'm talking about the process now.

There's nothing on their part that they can make any decision or any judgment or slant anything because at the end of the day who is driving (the COI)? The committee here is driving it.

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