Guyana: Alleged child molester elected

NOTHING can now legally prevent alleged child molester Winston Harding from taking his seat among the councillors of the Georgetown Mayor and City Council, the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) has said on Saturday.

GECOM Commissioner Vincent Alexander told reporters at a media briefing that the laws governing Local Government Elections (LGE) do not provide for the recall of an elected councillor.

Results from Constituency 13 show that alleged child molester Winston Harding, who campaigned on behalf of, and represented, the APNU-AFC in the Local Government Elections (LGE), emerged with the most votes. And Alexander has explained that “there is no legal basis for (Harding’s) disqualification.”

“It is a moral question, political question, but it certainly is not a legal question,” Alexander said. The GECOM Commissioner noted that the Commission has to work with what is provided for in the law.

“First of all, there is no position, as far as I know, for an individual to be recalled. Secondly, this is not a GECOM question; GECOM works with the laws provided… This is beyond GECOM,” Alexander explained.

GECOM has said that the only way Harding could be replaced would be by virtue of a by-election within his constituency. By-elections could occur only if Harding resigns from his elected post on the Georgetown City Council, or dies while holding office.

APNU had withdrawn its endorsement of Harding following concerns raised over his representation of the coalition government; but Harding has won the East and West Ruimveldt Constituency by a landslide.

Asked by the media on Saturday whether APNU would look to have Harding removed from sitting on the City Council, President David Granger, who heads APNU, said “the matter would be discussed within the PNCR and our partners within the APNU before we proceed.”

The President noted that APNU’s decision to withdraw its support for Harding has not changed, but said he (President) was not in a position to give the party’s position on the issue of Harding being a representative of the Municipality of Georgetown.

“At this point in time, I cannot go beyond that announcement, until it has been discussed,” President Granger said. The President has committed to seeking an explanation from Social Protection Minister Volda Lawrence on her utterances recently publicized in the media on the issue of Harding campaigning on behalf of, and representing, APNU.

Lawrence, who had responsibility for the APNU-AFC LGE campaign in the Georgetown area, was quoted in the Stabroek News in regard to the Harding issue as saying: “This is a family issue that has been going on and on and on and on for whatever reason.”

Harding has been repeatedly accused of child molestation, and was previously charged. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) Red Thread has expressed its displeasure at the manner in which Minister Lawrence handled the issue, and has called on the President to, at the very least, discipline the minister.

The NGO said Lawrence was making “excuses” for Harding, while failing to address the situation at hand.

Red Thread has argued that Lawrence is not best suited for her portfolio as Social Protection Minister, and said she “has to be disciplined, and the Government needs to find someone who is qualified to head this Ministry.”

During a picketing exercise, the NGO’s co-founder, Karen De Souza, who is a women’s and children’s rights activist, charged the Government to state clearly if it is serious about the protection of children.

“You can’t, on one hand, make excuses for not addressing a situation…in a legal way, and on the other hand say that you take child care seriously; it is contradictory. And so the Government has to hold her responsible, as we are holding her responsible. The Government has to indicate to us very clearly that they are serious about child care and protection, because at the moment it looks like hypocrisy” De Souza has stressed.

She insists that Government needs “to find someone who is qualified to head this Ministry, because we can also say that very little has happened in terms of policy movement on domestic violence, sexual offenses, and child care since she has been minister.”

Opposition Parliamentarian Dr Vindhya Persaud has used her Facebook page to express “disgust” at Minister Lawrence’s remarks. Dr Persaud is the Opposition PPP’s representative on social welfare issues.

“In a country where we are grappling with the issue of child abuse, and where children are our most vulnerable…how can she say the highlighted issue of child abuse is a ‘family matter’ and she must not be involved (?).

“Her Ministry deals directly with child abuse, and the Child Protection Agency falls (sic) within that purview…I think it is a crying shame, and the Minister must be called to task!!”

“I will seek an explanation from Ms Lawrence about the circumstances under which Mr Harding was selected,” the President told reporters.

Attempts to contact Minister Lawrence on Saturday proved futile.