Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission hears evidence pertaining to several cases in fifth hearing |14 September 2019
The Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission yesterday heard evidence pertaining to numerous cases of alleged human rights violations committed during the 1977 coup and the following years in which Seychelles was a one-party state.
Case #3 Daniel Auguste forced into exile and property acquisition
The first matter handled by the commission yesterday morning was the complaint filed by Daniel Auguste who alleges that he was forced into exile and his property was unlawfully repossessed.
Mr Auguste provided evidence to the commission during a closed session between 9am and 10am before the witness in the matter, Serge Rouillon, a then curator of vacant estates, was questioned as to his knowledge and involvement in the matter.
Chairperson of the commission, Gabrielle Louise McIntyre, remarked that court records indicate that Mr Rouillon petitioned the court to have all rights and property of Mr Auguste vested in him as the curator of vested estates and that it was granted on February 8, 1991. The property was subsequently repossessed by the Seychelles Housing Development Corporation (SHDC), on May 7, 1991 and then sold to Mr Auguste’s sister-in-law in 1997.
Mr Rouillon started off by stating that he does not know Mr Auguste and that they have never met. He explained that the curator of vacant estates operates under the umbrella of the Registrar General and that his role as curator was only a minor part of his duty.
In relation to the Daniel Auguste matter, Mr Rouillon stated that as far as he was made aware, he “carried out a mechanical transaction based on a file received and instructions received” and that he was not aware of the other facts of the case until yesterday morning.
“Essentially, there was this policy of acquisition of land, and, it was a general thing for, where there were absentees, the minister to acquire a property. And if the person was absent from Seychelles and could not be traced, then the curator was taken and put into the shoes of the absentee,” Mr Rouillon noted.
The curator would write a letter to the last known address on file and awaits a response. He noted that the main policy and decisions were taken elsewhere and not by the curator, that they only acted upon instructions and that there were instances and cases where “property was taken for different motives”.
According to Mr Rouillon, the curator did not handle any money even for compensation payments when it applied but that this was handled by technicians in the Land Registry.
According to Mr Rouillon, such acts were provided for under the Land Acquisition Act which he termed as “ruthless” and that an employee within the MLUH, an Indian valuer who if there was no development on the property, it was classed as having no value under the Act with no compensation considered but they would also decide on the value of any structures, if any existed on the property.
“Curator writes to the person, they don’t respond, the curator makes an application to court for vesting order. A vesting order is put into the curator vesting him with the property of the absentee,” he said noting that the instructions are from SHDC and MLUH (Ministry of Land Use and Habitat).
Mr Rouillon alleged that there are many more cases of land acquisition “that could be considered as theft”.
In the case of Mr Auguste, it would appear that the property was repossessed which had been mortgaged as guarantee for a loan.
“This was happening with quite a few of the local people as well, people who defaulted, they had to suffer the same consequences. The house would be given to, according to the instructions, a more needy person because that was the policy of the (France Albert) Rene government basically, to supply housing to people in need and they were prepared to take their obligation seriously,” Mr Rouillon noted.
Mr Rouillon went further to note that numerous laws pertaining to people’s rights need to be reviewed and revised since they are obsolete.
Jean-Claude D’offay, former principal secretary within MLUH on President Rene’s Orders (Daniel Auguste Case #3)
The commission called on Jean-Claude D’Offay, a principal secretary for housing at the time of the events complained about by Mr Auguste and that he spoke to Mr D’Offay on numerous occasions prior to losing his property, before it was repossessed and sold.
According to Mr D’Offay, Mr Auguste took a loan from SHDC but when he was leaving in exile in September 1986, he informed Mr D’Offay, a friend to him that his sister-in-law would be residing in the said property. The loan was paid for by Mr Auguste’s sister-in-law but after a few months, she defaulted on the payments.
“When SHDC sent me the file and asked what do we do? And I said we have to act according to the law which states that if you do not pay your loan, the property is repossessed,” he continued.
The SHDC repossessed Mr Auguste’s house and advised that his sister-in-law should be evicted. However, he alleges that he received a phone call from the late former President Albert Rene, who said “she stays in the house”.
“These days you couldn’t say anything bad. One day, he called and told me to give someone the house and I said “Sir. Send me a memo or go through the minister,” and he said “Jean-Claude, it’s an order” he said stating that public servants were sometime bound to follow direct orders from Mr Rene.
According to the commission, Mr Auguste received a letter dating back to April 1987 telling him that he was R30,000 in arrears but that the stated amount is wrong considering his repayment amounted to R900 a month totalling in at just over R10,000 annually and that he had just left Seychelles a few months prior in September 1986. Mr D’Offay concurred that the stated amount is perhaps incorrect but that all records were kept at SHDC and managed by the entity.
The commission also referred to a copy of a letter sent by N. Buisson from the President’s Office on August 11, 1987, in which Mr Auguste’s sister-in-law was asked to vacate the premises since SHDC had already marked this property for a needy family, but to which she replied that she had no intention of vacating as she spent money on the house and needs a place of her own.
SHDC had its own board who had a say in things. Policy was if you do not pay, your house was repossessed. They would bring you to rent board and kick you out and pass it to somebody in need. District would sent letter as to who needs a house, recommendation to ministry in charge and approved. People in need and district administrators had a say.
It would appear as though the directive from President Rene to let her stay in the house was after the said exchange of letters.
SHDC had its own board who had a say in things and the decision as to who was categorised as ‘needy’ was made by administrators at district level who would make recommendations to Minister Hodoul followed by his successor Minister Esmée Jumeau who would then approve and refer back to SHDC with people with children being considered as a first priority.
Mr D’Offay also stated that he has no recollection of negotiations between Mr Auguste and him while Mr Auguste was away in exile. Negotiations were a usual procedure if the person was in arrears.
Asked if he had any contact with Mr Auguste while he was living in exile in England, Mr D’Offay suggested that he suspected that his landline was tapped and that it may have been a normal practice to tap the phone of public servants in contact with persons considered a risk to the state or who were outspoken.
-Case #6 Paul Michaud – Complainant, land acquisition in the national interest
During the afternoon session of the fifth hearing, the commission heard evidence in another matter pertaining to acquisition of land.
The complainant, Paul Michaud, laid out the events which led to the acquisition of a plot of land owned by his family located at Mont Fleuri, where the now International School Parking is located stating that “it was a clearly planned malicious and vile act”. It must be noted, the said property was acquired in the national interest.
Mr Michaud noted that in 1979, his brother Roland was awarded a scholarship through the British Council to study medicine in the UK. As a condition for him to go, their mother was required to sign a bond which she did with the said property as guarantee. Upon completing his studies however, Roland decided that he would stay in England for a few years and advised his mother that he was willing to pay for the bonded amount. However, when their mother approached concerned authorities and laid out the proposition, she was advised that they “want the house” and that a week later she was advised to sign the house over to them within seven days or they would make arrangements for her son in UK to be expelled by the UK government. He argued that they had the funds to pay the necessary amount on account that their father had passed away and left to each of his children a sum of £15,000 as well as properties that they could have mortgaged.
He noted that a second brother, Joseph, was forced into exile in the early 1980s after he had taken part in the youth demonstrations against the National Youth Service (NYS) and that a few days later, his uncle Dr Ferrari, came by his house and advised his mother to “tell Joe to take the plane and leave now, we will not be responsible for what happens to him”. He noted that his brother left for England where he remained in exile for 20 years.
Mr Michaud also recounted an explosion on one of his family’s property at Anse Forbans in which he claims Simon Desnousse and Mike Asher’s bodies were dumped.
The property stayed in government hands and remained undeveloped until 1991, when it was subdivided into two plots V7021 and V7022. According to Mr Michaud, V7022 was then sold to the International School for R10,000 and the other plot remained fallow until 1996 when the SPPF party, led by former President Albert Rene, bought V7021 from the government for the sum of R150,000. It was further subdivided into five smaller plots which they rented out until 2016, when questions were raised about a plot which forms part of the subdivisions, V12256, and it was sold back to the government for R250,000.
“We had a four-bedroom house, three bathrooms, sitting room inside, a dining room outside, car ports, quarters for the workers, stores, boatshed and slipway by the sea. They just flattened the place and left it like that for many many years, and when the International School started to park on there, V12256,” he said explaining that they lived on the property at the time.
“My point is that they robbed us under false pretenses. They threatened my mother who was a widow, took her property and then shared it between les copains et les copines. This is wrong and we seek justice,” he uttered.
He noted that they did not seek redress for the matter when Seychelles was declared a multi-party state as they thought the process would not be successful.
He too suggested that telephone bugging was a normal practice and that he could provide the commission with evidence regarding phone tapping as he himself has worked as a technician with telecommunications company Cable & Wireless for 18 years.
He also recalled an alleged kidnap attempt on him in 1987. As a yachtsman, during his preparations for an international sailing competition and he used to routinely run from the yacht club to a discotheque called Kapatya, located at Anse Etoile. One day, on the way back, upon reaching the Independent School, he stopped just ahead under a street light to tie his shoes when he noticed someone lighting a cigarette in a car parked in a dark spot near him. At that point he said, he walked away and ran as fast as he could and that the car chased him from there to Radyo Sesel and then turned back.
He then made a report to the police including stating the car number and following the report, he called a friend at around 6pm, the brother of Phillip Lucas, one of the men who allegedly participated in the coup. Three hours later, his friend called back and said “Paul we are very sorry about last night. We had the wrong information about you” and that they had been informed that Mr Michaud was training for the mercenary invasion.
According to Mr Michaud, he had a realtor evaluate the property without the house. The report presented to the commission stated the estimated value of the property as evaluated without the house R10.5 million. As for the estimated value of the house which was demolished, Mr Michaud stated about R1.5 million.
He proposed that he is representing the heirs and is willing to hear proposals from the government which he will communicate to the other heirs.
The commission had drafted a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Land Tribunal that case involving elements of victimisation, be brought and dealt with by the commission. The commission has powers to recommend compensation to the government and can also when a perpetrator comes forward and petitions for amnesty and admits something, to make a compensation order directly for the complainant where they have benefitted from the wrong-doing.
A former official of the Ministry of Education, Willie Confait, the then director of international affairs in charge of scholarships, also appeared before the commission and stated that it was not the norm to acquire property whereas if it was a case of meeting the costs of the scholarship agreement, a compulsory acquisition would not be required.
He noted that at the time when Mr Michaud had not returned, the guarantor would be asked to repay, even by installment, the training agreement and stated that he is unaware of the negotiations between Mrs Michaud and the concerned officials.
He stated that in instances where the guarantor did not pay, they would be taken to court but that more often than not, they would negotiate repayment options. He recalls that he met with Mrs Michaud about the matter once and that “she was not happy” and that she did not indicate that she was willing to pay but that the land issue had not been raised before he left to further his studies in June 1988, one month before the land was acquired.
He was adamant that compulsory acquisition of land has nothing to do with scholarships and that it was restricted to the ministry concerned with housing as opposed to the Ministry of Education and Information.
- Case #2 Lewis Betsy
Mr Confait also answered the commission’s questions regarding the Lewis Betsy case, who, after being arrested and incarcerated and then released without charge, went back to his place of employment where he received a letter a few days later advising him that he had been terminated.
Mr Confait recalled that he was working at the department of public administration at the time, as a senior assistant secretary responsible for appointments, promotions and termination of appointment and the principal secretary at the time was Ian MacInson. He continued on to state that when Mr Betsy was arrested and imprisoned, Mr McInson imposed a suspension of his employment between the periods of December 1, 1979 and February 19, 1980. At the time, Mr Betsy was employed with the government printing department.
During Mr Betsy’s detention, Mr Confait noted that he wrote to the government printing department to seek suggestions as to how to proceed and it was at that point that the recommendation was made to terminate Mr Betsy on the grounds that they had no trust in him.
Mr Confait noted that he was then directed to terminate his appointment based on a recommendation by the government head of printing department and the under-secretary at that time. He said he discussed the recommendation with Mr McInson and they were told that the concerned authorities no longer have any trust and confidence in Mr Betsy as an employee.
At the time, the power to appoint, terminate, promote rested with the President of the Republic of Seychelles who instructed for Mr Betsy’s appointment to be terminated. Mr Betsy had been employed with the entity for nine years.
Mr Confait recalled that most persons who were arrested, even if not charged, were dismissed from their workplaces.
“There was a list of civil servants, who were arrested and detained and after two or three months, then, we were instructed to terminate their appointments. At that time, when they terminate your appointment it was not necessary to state a reason for termination under the laws and regulations in place in those days,” he said.
- Case #1 Dorothy Chang-Him et al. (Davidson Chang-Him)
Mr Willie Confait also addressed the commission’s questions pertaining to the Liberation Day Memorial Fund, from which the family of Davidson Chang-Him were supposed to benefit, but which they allege they have not.
Mr Confait was the de facto secretary of the board which governed the fund after being asked by the then Minister for Public Administration, former President James Michel to help with the administration of the fund.
According to Mr Confait, the Seychelles Liberation Fund was established to assist, maintain the families of Francis Rachel, Berard Jeanie and Davidson Chang-Him and for the maintenance of relatives of Freddy Lalanne, a soldier who was killed in the Seychelles People’s Defence Forces after it had just been established.
He notes that he was requested to draft up a list of all the children of the stated casualties and was sent to Mr Michel, the chairman of the fund and a pension was approved for each of the individual.
“They were getting a pension and when I left in 1988, they were still getting a pension I think the funds were from the SPDF, and public donations and I think I remember some of the funds were invested in bonds, fixed deposits to get the interest to continue the payments,” he said.
Mr Confait continued on to state that he thinks that the files were transferred over to the Ministry of Finance after his departure although he was unsure of the exact amount each beneficiary was receiving.
He suggested that the commission obtain the files of the financial accounts as records do exist.
It must be noted that former Chief of Defence Forces Leopold Payet appeared before the commission earlier this week and noted that the files are in the President’s Office after they were requested by the Vice-President last December.
Mr Confait was still employed at the DPA at the Ministry of Education until 1988 until it was transferred to the Ministry of Finance where it was being handled by Al Chang-Leng who according to him, was at one point an accounting general.
Mr Confait was also involved with the preparing the accounts of the fund.
It would appear as though the fund was extended to compensate the relatives of persons injured in the army although according to the commission, the Act does not permit such.
He said that at the time, revenues were generated from fines issued to army personnel, the highest balance being around R480,000.
The commission and Mr Confait concurred that the fund should have been closed on account that it was established only to fund the maintenance of the said children until they reached they age of 18, provided that the Act has not been amended, which it doesn’t appear to have been.
According to Mr Marcus Simeon, the chief executive of the Agency that effects social welfare payments and payments for the fund who appeared before the commission this week, is still existent.
The commission will resume with its hearings next Monday morning at 9.30am where Bernard Georges will provide evidence on detention orders and the presidential decree to hold people as well as case #3 in relation to Daniel Auguste’s land claim. Mr Georges represented Mr Auguste in court proceedings pertaining to the land.