The Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission: | 13 September 2019
Lewis Betsy recounts his ordeal leading to his exile to the UK
The Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission yesterday held its first hearing in the case of Lewis Betsy, a former Rovers Football Club captain who was exiled to the United Kingdom in 1979, after having been arrested and imprisoned for 3 months without any formal charges.
The complainant, Mr Betsy recounted his experience from 1979, almost two years after the Coup against late former President James Mancham allegedly by the late former President France Albert Rene.
According to Mr Betsy, 1979 was a great year for him as a sportsman and in general. After starting a career in football, he had joined his good friend Gerard Hoareau in the Rovers Football Club where Hoareau was a coach. He recalled a football match against a foreign team that same year, whereby President Rene was present and shook hands with the players wishing them the best of luck, terming the experience as “a big deal” as a young football player.
Continuing on with his account, Mr Betsy referred to a meeting at Pirates Arms Restaurant directed by the late Minister Esmé Jumeau in which it was announced that zoning had been introduced in sports and thus sportsmen were obligated to play for the district team. As an enthusiastic young sportsman, Mr Betsy stood up at the meeting expressing his views against the decision and he eventually ended his career in football.
At the time, Mr Betsy was employed at a print house and had a young son, Kevin Betsy (who is making a name for himself as the coach for the England under 17 national team) by his wife Juliana Betsy. According to him, on November 15, 1979, Friday, prior to then, his coach and best friend, whom he saw on a daily basis, Gerard Hoareau was arrested and detained.
Mr Betsy presented to the commission a list of persons arrested, verbally stating that he knew of at least 80 people who were arrested.
The following Tuesday, less than a week after Hoareau’s arrest, at around 10.45am, three men showed up at the print house at which he worked, at the site of the former SBC radio station at Union Vale, to arrest him.
“There were three armed men and they handed over a detention order and said they need to arrest me and detain me. They said they received the order from President Rene to arrest me and I was shocked. They told me to follow them outside to a Land Rover and instructed me to get inside and drove straight from the printhouse to prison,” Mr Betsy noted.
At the prison, which was also situated at Union Vale at that time, Mr Betsy said that his details were taken and he was placed in a holding cell where he remained for three months without any formal charge. While he was imprisoned however, Mr Betsy was interviewed by then Commissioner of Police James Pillay at the Central Police Station where Pillay showed him a copy of anti-government gazette that was allegedly circulating at the time, implying that Betsy was the mastermind behind the gazette. He was allegedly also told by Commissioner Pillay that he was being detained by the pleasure of the President because he poses a risk to the country.
“I told him that I do not know anything about the gazette and he again said that I would die in prison if I am not forthcoming with the information. I went back to prison and nothing happened until my release in February,” he said.
“After that, my life, after having experienced that, you try not to get involved in anything. I returned home and I had lost my job and was told I am not permitted to work as I had been officially terminated from my job,” Mr Betsy recalled.
He noted that there was no way to challenge the arrest since prisoners were held without being charged or any official paperwork.
The commission were presented with the termination letter dated March 1, 1980, and a prior letter proving his promotion shortly before the arrest.
“I have a letter stating my promotion, another signed by Willie Confait and another letter of termination dated 1.3.1980,” Mr Betsy noted.
Mr Betsy continued on to state that shortly after his release, he was advised by Ogilvy Berlouis, a character alleged to have participated in the Coup by witnesses in the Davidson Chang-Him matter before the commission, advised him to leave the country based on the fact that his reputation had already been ruined by the arrest among other reasons.
He recalls that he left Seychelles in a haste and arrived in England on April 1, 1980 where he was accommodated by family members, with his wife and son still back in Seychelles. In England, Mr Betsy was made to seek help from the British government and recalls that he was well received, even by Amnesty International and he was eventually granted refugee status. A few months later, his wife was able to afford flight fares for her and her son from selling their furniture and car and they met him in England where they “started from scratch”.
“Life in England was not easy, as you know, restarting your life, but I think God has helped us as well. I wouldn’t want for any other family to go through what we went through,” he said.
While in England, the Betsy family kept in touch and were close to Gerard Hoareau who after 9 months in prison also found his way to England. Mr Betsy stated emotionally that Gerard was tragically shot outside his home in London in 1985. They were supposed to meet that afternoon at 3pm but Gerard was killed just before lunchtime at 11.30am. Mr Betsy claims that he received a phone call that very morning and was told by someone with an Irish accent “You’d better watch out or you’ll be next”. He was interviewed by Scotland Yard in relation to the murder of Hoareau on account that they were close.
Prior to the arrest, Mr Betsy and his wife had purchased land at La Misère measuring just over 8000 square metres financed through a loan of R100,000 from the then SHDC (Seychelles Housing Development Company). Together, they saved and with the money he had been paid after termination, they started the construction of a house, to be their future home and according to him, the only thing that was left was the roofing.
When in England, Mr Betsy said that he tried many ways to try and keep the land and things went well until 1991 when Mr Rene declared a multi-party state and declared that all Seychellois were welcome home. He wrote to Mr Rene to enquire about the land but to no avail. The couple had defaulted on the loan after their leaving Seychelles, and had been informed through correspondence that the land was being repossessed. At that point, a lawyer representing the government though informed them that if they paid a fee of R10,000, the said land would be retransferred back to them. Considering the recession in England at the time, the couple were struggling to sell their house to raise the finances and thus requested through letter for a 14-day extension.
The land was eventually sold to Serge Monthy for a stated sum of R80,000 on April 6, 1994.
Mr Betsy is of the view that he was targeted because of his affiliation with Gerard Hoareau, who at the time was accused of many crimes and because he expressed disagreement about the zoning in sports decision.
“I don’t know in Seychelles if he was politically active, the only thing we were active about was the zoning thing since we were a very disciplined and organised football club. So then we stopped playing as well, we didn’t take part in it. We were singled out. The captain and the coach,” Mr Betsy said.
Mrs Juliana Betsy on sister and husband’s arrest, disappearance of Hassanali, acquired land
Mrs Juliana Betsy, the wife of Lewis Betsy, was the second to give evidence in the matter and recalls the arrest of her sister, Carlette Tall, a few days before that of her husband for the second time. Carlette, whose husband Hassanali Umarji Ebrahim had disappeared, was arrested and imprisoned after 3 officers arrested her at the family house at which she was staying at St Louis and drove her away in a Mini Moke.
She recalls that she visited the prison on a daily basis to bring clothes and necessities to her sister Carlette, husband Lewis and their friend Gerard Hoareau and that on each visit she was not welcomed by the officers.
Mrs Betsy emphasised that she thought the family was being targeted for being strong supporters of the Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP) leader, the late Sir James Mancham.
“I went to his mum at Les Mamelles and I told her that he had been arrested, Lewis was the only in his family who supported Mancham because he worked for the Weekly. My family, the ‘Tall’ of St Louis, supported Mancham all our lives. We were not ashamed, we were happy to support him because we believed in him. Lewis had never done anything wrong to go to prison. He had not committed any crime. He was put in prison because he believed, as a footballer, he didn’t want to play in a zoning system. Who has the right to choose friends for you?” Mrs Betsy stated.
She continued on to state that “militia” were stationed around the family house at St Louis in a bid to spy on the family and intimidate them.
Speaking of the disappearance of Hassanali, the brother-in-law of Mrs Betsy, she noted that she stumbled upon his car on the day of his disappearance after he failed to turn up to the family house in St Louis, only a short drive from his house in La Louise.
Hassanali disappeared on August 13, 1977 and his car was found at St Louis, allegedly with the radio still on and his slippers on the road.
“When I called him, he never showed up so I walked down the road past Dorasamy’s shop, the car was there, radio still on and slippers still there. Whoever tried to get hold of Hassan, he didn’t go willingly. I went back home and rang my sister and said ‘I have just seen Hassan’s car but he is not there. His slippers are there’, so we started a search for him in vain,” she recollected.
Mrs Betsy went on to talk about how even her closest family members were unaware that Mr Betsy was leaving for England. As stated by her husband, she concurs that she stayed with family while he was away and sold her car and furniture to save enough money to cover the travel expenses and that when it was time to leave, she was scared of being stopped at the airport.
They received a small allowance from the UK government before they were permitted to work 18 months later.
“After we were permitted to work, we carried on working really hard. Lewis loves his country and I think he loves it more than I do. I got a job straight away as he went to college of printing. He was very lucky because when he got there, he had a friend who was to establish a printing company. We were in a council flat on the ninth floor. We didn’t have anything to sit down on and the flat we had was underfloor heating and my mum sent us some money via a postal order. I remember buying my son a folding chair to sit on and we couldn’t afford another one until the other money came. We wanted to be dependent on ourselves and when he started work, we started buying little bits every month and made our lives there. We stayed in a council house for quite a while,” she stated before the commission.
“I thank the UK government for looking after us but not the Seychelles government. I am bitter, because they arrested Lewis and sent us into exile, my sister was arrested twice for asking where her husband was, Gerard Hoareau was gunned down in front of his house by bullets like he was a criminal,” she said emotionally.
She claims that she was denied a passport by President Rene when she was living in exile in England and thus travelled on travel documents issued by the UK government.
Speaking of the land matter, Mrs Betsy asserted that they had no means of paying for the loan issued to them for payment of the land at La Misère from England. She notes that upon returning to Seychelles in 1993, the first thing she proceeded to do was to contact the lawyer, J.A Sundaram, who had conducted the negotiations with them through correspondence from England and had instructed them to pay. It was agreed that they were granted a slight 14-day delay in paying R10,000 to have the land retransferred back to them but was informed by him that he cannot accept any payment and to go and see the then Minister for Land and Habitat Dolor Ernesta who failed to assist her.
Mr Ernesta is due to give evidence in the matter on October 10 to 18 when the commission sits for its next session.
According to the letter presented to the commission, sent through fax dated March 3, 1994, they were ready to issue the part payment of R10,000 for plot B431 at La Misère and instructed the lawyer to advise them as to the account number for the telegraphic transfer to be executed.
On April 15, 1994, Mrs Betsy filed a Caution to claim as a legal owner through Attorney-at-law Bernard Georges, after finding out at the Registration Office that it was to be transferred to Serge Monthy. By that time, the land had already been transferred to a parastatal entity, the Seychelles Housing Development Corporation and then sold by them to Mr Monthy.
“Why did they agree for us to pay that R10,000 and then in a rush they go and sell it. That land has been sitting there since we went in exile. What triggered them to all of a sudden decide ‘ah! that is a nice plot of land,” she said.
Third witness Patrick Lablache
The third witness to sit before the commission yesterday was Patrick Lablache who talked about the Seychelles Housing Development Corporation and how it functioned.
Mr Lablache explained that the SHDC was a parastatal, or a legal entity but not independent from the government whose mandate was to issue loans to assist families financially with land or housing but did not necessarily engage in selling land.
He noted that he was unaware of specific cases of land being acquired through the entity and that it was possible under the Land Acquisition Act for the government to acquire land in the interest of the public and later extended to include in the national interest. Such decisions were taken at Cabinet level. The Act, according to him, provides for ways to claim compensation.
Mr Lablache is expected to appear before the commission again in future claims of land acquired.
Members of the commission yesterday assured the public that witness protection is available through the police, for witnesses who fear for their personal safety or feel that they need protection. Individuals who feel they need such assistance can contact the commission through the means stated below.
They also launched an appeal for witnesses and perpetrators of violations to come forth with information.
It must be noted that they clarified that no cases can be pursued from the International Criminal Court as Seychelles only became a party in August 2010. Therefore, the amnesty offered by the commission cannot be threatened by the International Criminal Court.
Commission postal addres: P.O Box 5013, Beau Vallon, Mahé
The commission will reconvene at 9am today with the case of Daniel Auguste which will be heard in closed session until 10am.
The commission is still hearing evidence in the case pertaining to Davidson Chang-Him and Lewis Betsy.