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Paria enquiry chair apologises for new delay in report deadline

Laurel V Williams Commission of enquiry chairman Jerome Lynch, KC. - Photo by Sureash Cholai
Commission of enquiry chairman Jerome Lynch, KC. - Photo by Sureash Cholai

Jerome Lynch, KC, chairman of the Paria Commission of Enquiry (CoE), has apologised to the families of the victims for the latest extension of the report's deadline.

"That apology is extended to everyone awaiting the final outcome of this report. It is clear from the families and others that they have already formed the view that they hold Paria responsible," Lynch said.

"We do not have the luxury of pre-judging. We must approach this in an unbiased, objective way, examining all the evidence before reaching our view of the facts and what that means for the people involved."

Lynch spoke at a virtual press conference on Wednesday about the new deadline of November 30 that the enquiry has asked for.

On February 25, 2022, divers Rishi Nagassar, Kazim Ali Jr, Fyzal Kurban, Yusuf Henry and Christopher Boodram were were sucked into a a 30-inch underwater pipeline belonging to Paria Fuel Trading Co Ltd on which they were doing maintenance work. All died except Boodram.

The CoE was originally due to submit its report to the president in May. But in a statement on May 5 it said it had written to President Christine Kangaloo seeking an extension until August 31.

Lynch recalled that in August, the divers' relatives issued a statement on the new deadline, saying they struggle to deal with the burden of the loss of their loved ones.

Lynch quoted from the statement about the permanent destruction of their livelihoods, flashbacks, sleepless nights and haunting images of what happened.

The families criticised the request for an extension, saying it was an "unwelcome, insulting and unjust development."

Lynch said the commissioners, staff, and other involved agencies were "well aware" of the August 31 deadline and should have been working so as to ensure they met it.

"The undertaking of responsibilities associated with this commission report cannot be seen as simply a job, but rather viewed as a critical component in the delivery of justice," Lynch said.

He said the commission understands the families' deep sense of frustration at the further delay.

Lynch said there had been some media speculation that the delay resulted from either political or company interference "in some way."

"I can state categorically that that is not the case. If there were even a whiff of such an approach, I would make that very public indeed," he said.

He said the Government, particularly Energy Minister Stuart Young, had done all it could to facilitate and expedite the report.

"I am confident they will wish to publish it in short order once it is concluded and submitted. We place no blame on anyone else's door for this delay.

"I have decided that we will take a little more time and add additional safeguards to ensure fairness to all and limit the potential for any further litigation aimed at thwarting the legitimate aims of this inquiry."

He said the commission had received letters from lawyers representing workers from Kenson, one of the companies involvef in the enquiry, on August 2. On Tuesday, it received letters from lawyers representing Heritage Petroleum and Paria.

"Both suggested they have been unfairly treated and that the commissioners, I suspect, primarily me, have displayed an apparent bias and that we should be recused," Lynch said. "I do not deal with the merits of those complaints now, as they have yet to be fully articulated."

A press conference, he said, was not the right forum to make such decisions.

He added, "While I wholeheartedly reject those allegations, I would have thought that if there was to be an application for recusal on the grounds of apparent bias, it is normal in the first instance for that to be made before the tribunal engaged in the process."

He said there had been no request for the CoE to resume sitting to hear such an application, and no such application has been put before the commission.