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Mark Benschop, social activist and host of the ‘Straight Up’ programme, broadcast on 107.1FM and streamed online, sat with Village Voice to share his 5+ years experience incarcerated in Camp Street Prison on a treason charge he was never convicted of. Saturday, August 27, marked 15 years since Benschop walked out of prison.
In 2002 Benschop and Phillip Bynoe were charged for treason but Bynoe was never arrested. In a 2013 interview with Benschop, Bynoe said “Mark Benschop decided on his own to listen to the advice of his attorney and turned himself in. Phillip Bynoe took his own counsel and refused to turn himself in.”
The fatal July 3, 2002
On July 3, 2002 a protest led by Bynoe in front of the Office of the President (OP) went awry. The protest was against the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) government treatment of residents in Region 10 and in other African-dominated communities. Benschop said he could remember the incident as though it was today.
He was heading to the Pegasus Hotel to interview Jamaica’s Prime Minister PJ Patterson, and Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who were in Guyana for a CARICOM Heads of Government meeting when he heard of a protest and decided to participate.
Part way into the protest it began to drizzle and the crowd split. Some demonstrators went walking along Shivranine Chanderpaul Dr, i.e., in front of the OP and stopped to chant their disapproval. Benschop said he heard what sounded like gunshot reverberating through the air and learnt it was coming from the OP.
He headed to the scene and arrived there after the demonstrators were in the compound. Benschop said when he looked up at the building he saw Dr. Roger Luncheon and Mr. Robert Persaud looking through the windows with looks reminiscent of those who supported the police brutality of African Americans during the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights struggles.
Asked to elaborate, Benschop said their expressions were akin to Governor George Wallace’s legendary posture at the schoolhouse to block efforts at equality and inclusion by respecting the law and allowing for the integration of black students into all white schools.
After witnessing what was happening, i.e., people scampering from bullets and running to safety into the offices on the ground floor, he borrowed a loud hailer from one of the protestors and said, “stop shooting the people.”
That day the police killed two persons and injured several.
Benschop said immediately after the incident he told Bynoe he should have never taken the protesters to OP.
Charged and remanded
On July 12, 2002 Benschop was charged with forcible entry; aiding, abetting, counselling and procuring the committal of the forcible entry; riotous damage to property; and taking part in an illegal procession. On the treason charge it was said that Bynoe and Benschop between June 1 and July 3 2002, formed an intention to overthrow the lawfully elected Government of Guyana by force. During the said period, in furtherance of the aforesaid intention, they allegedly:
(a) Conspired together with persons to forcibly and unlawfully enter into the compound and premises of the OP;
(b) Were present at and encouraged others by words and conduct, to unlawfully overtake and storm the OP compound and premises.
Benschop was represented by attorneys-at-law Basil Williams, Mortimer Coddette, Roysdale Forde, Shaun Allicock and Raphael Trotman.
Attorneys-at-law Anil Nandlall and Sanjeev J. Datadin were hired and handsomely paid by the state as special prosecutors
Benschop, however, contends the PPP/C government feared they would have attracted international condemnation for shooting, injuring and killing unarmed citizens, so sought to divert attention from their cruelty by accusing him and Bynoe of treason. They went on a public relations blitz, accusing citizens without weapons or ammunition of wanting to overthrow the government, poisoning the minds of citizens against fellow citizens who are really the victims of the PPP/C’s inhumanity, he said.
Living in ‘The Dungeon’
Remanded to prison awaiting trial, Benschop spent five plus years in ‘The Dungeon’ where he went without sunlight. To get to ‘The Dungeon’ persons had to pass through three different gates and there was one big iron gate in a section sealed off with concrete and in that area, there were four 6 feet x 6 feet cells. He occupied one.
He slept on the concrete floor on a thin piece of mattress and saw only 15 minutes of sunlight every day because for the remaining 23 hours and 45-minutes in the day he was locked in his cell. According to him, when that 15-minute of sunlight came, the wardens would wait for the midday sun when it was at its hottest and placed him in a cage in the air.
He began his day by emptying his potty, taking a bath, then receiving the Guyana Chronicle and Stabroek News newspapers and placed in solitary confinement again. Kaieteur News was banned, Benschop said.
Asked how he kept his sanity and sense of being during this time, the social activist said he read hundreds of books and the newspapers until the words faded on the paper. Whilst admitting to not being highly religious, Benschop said he read the Holy Bible, Quran and Bhagavad Gita from cover to cover. He also became a quasi-teacher, mentor and counsellor to fellow inmates who he inspired and was also inspired by.
Lessons learned from Nelson Mandela
Mark Benschop and Nelson Mandela
Benschop said one of the things that prepared him to not buckle in the presence of challenges is his seriousness he brings to social activism. To him, this is not a one-off thing or opportunity to be in the limelight, but driven by deep conviction for justice and the preparedness to pursue it wherever it takes him.
Benschop considers himself a “dedicated activist” and said he recognises that level of dedication means he must be prepared for jail and to be killed because real activists acknowledge these eventualities living in corrupt societies, with compromised judiciary and intolerant government.
Out of all the governments in Guyana, he said, activism during the PPP/C government meant anything can happen to you, including being murdered as in the case of Crum-Ewing.
On March 10, 2015 Courtney Crum-Ewing’s lifeless body, with his bull horn lying next to him, was found at Third Avenue, Diamond Housing Scheme, East Bank Demerara. Crum-Ewing was known for his one-man protests outside the office of Attorney General (AG), Anil Nandlall. In April 2021, the accused Regan Rodrigues was acquitted of the murder on a no-case submission.
Benschop met famed South African aparthied fighter and later President Nelson Mandela when he visited the United States. Mandela was freed from Robben Island prison after 27 years of incarceration and six (6) years of solitary confinement. He sees their earlier meeting as both a coincidence and inspiration that sustained him when he was at Camp Street.
The two men not only shared similar experiences in prison and solitary confinement. Benschop remembered Mandela sharing with him a deep belief in the equality of Black, Asian and White South Africans, and that his spirit was fed and hopes kept high knowing this, and having the knowledge of others on the outside continuing the fight that led to his incarceration.
Benschop noted another coincidence, reading Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom ” while incarcerated. He referenced the passage where Mandela said, “he couldn’t take one night in solitary confinement because anybody who spends one night in solitary confinement their mind begins to play tricks on them” and for the most part of his incarceration he had to deal with that.
Convinced his incarceration was political
The social activist strongly believes his incarceration was political. He recalled shortly after leaving Camp Street, Jagdeo saying “he hopes he learned his lesson.”
Benschop wants it to be clearly known he refused the pardon but accepted the release since no court in Guyana has found him guilty of the offences he was charged for. At the time he made the decision to leave Camp Street he thought of his family and Ryan who was without a father and preparing for Common Entrance examination and would have needed his proximity support and contribution. That was the major factor that influenced his decision. Were it not for that he would have remained in jail until he had a trial and was exonerated.
In December 2002, whilst Benschop was incarcerated, he lost his eldest son, 7-year-old Rajiv, and Rajiv’s mother during a fire at their home in Queens, New York.
Achievements since leaving Camp Street
Since leaving Camp Street, Mark has returned to social activism and the streets. He has protested the PPP/C government and was held several times at Brickdam and other lock ups across Guyana in his fight for justice.
Benschop had successfully fought for and achieved the removal of PPP/C from government. He has, however, expressed some reservation that the A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) government would forget those who were fighting the PPP/C to make it possible for them. “They became arrogant,” he said.
Mark Benschop is a criminologist and has completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In February 2020 he was awarded the Medal of Service from the Government of Guyana for his work in activism.
Benschop has a beautiful wife, Ann and three children, namely, Ryan, Johnathan and Emma. Ryan recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with Hons in Economics and First Class Hons in Econometrics, and is about to enter the University of Oxford to pursue his master’s.
All and all, in spite of the ups and downs, I feel blessed every day by the continued outpourings of support, love and recognition from my family and the ordinary people who continue to inspire me, he said. “I am eternally grateful to all.”
If he had to live his life all over again he would be an activist because this is the best way to bring about change and improve the lives of the downtrodden, concluded Mark Benschop.