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Rodney commission starts work

Bert Wilkinson | 5/1/2014, 3:02 p.m.

An international commission of inquiry into the mid-1980s assassination of a Guyana-born U.S. and Caribbean Black Power and civil rights activist began in earnest in his homeland this week, with a senior police officer admitting that key files relating to his death have disappeared from the police’s secret surveillance section.

Senior Superintendent Leslie James, the former head of the undercover special branch department and now the force’s chief detective, presented only three files to the commission probing the death of acclaimed historian Walter Rodney. James said he could not account for at least seven more with important information leading up to his murder.

Indications show that the other files might have been destroyed, but James has been ordered to make a diligent search for the missing ones and be prepared to resume testimony at a later date. He is still under oath.

Rodney, who was active in the U.S. civil rights struggle in the 1970s, was killed when a bomb exploded in his lap in Guyana. Rodney was leading a fight to prevent a change in the British colonial-era constitution.

The Working People’s Alliance (WPA) party that Rodney had cofounded with other academics in the ʼ’70s, as well as local media, opposition parties and rights groups, immediately blamed the then government and fingered army undercover electronics expert Gregory Smith for handing him the device. Smith died in French Guiana without ever facing trial largely because the French government said the death penalty is still on the law books in Guyana. He had denied anything to do with the killing.

At the hearing, James admitted that files from surveillance work are kept only by the police special branch and stored nowhere else. Commission Chairman and prominent Barbadian attorney Sir Richard Cheltenham said the probe team is determined to ferret out the truth about the assassination, noting that “we want to ensure we can find them, or find some good reason why these files are not available.”

The team will sit for the remainder of the week and break for two weeks to await the arrival of several witnesses from Canada and the U.S., including executive members of Rodney’s WPA.

Appealing for witnesses to come forward and testify, Cheltenham said that a full pardon is in effect for any criminal wrongdoing, as the aim is only to find out the truth rather than slap charges on anyone.

Rodney was best known for his book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” in 1972. Boston University has an academic chair in his name. He was also active in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and taught in Africa and the Caribbean for several years before returning to his native country to form the WPA to challenge the then government.