The government yesterday defended its decision to prevent the former Information Minister from leaving the country, saying “it is totally legal.”
“There was nothing wrong preventing the former Minister from travelling outside the country when he was needed by the security agencies,” Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, a Deputy Minister of Information, told the Times in Accra.
He said the Criminal Code as well as the Security and Intelligence Act empowered the security agencies to prevent people needed for questioning from exiting the country.
But the ex-Information Minister, Stephen Asamoah-Boateng, who was on Sunday evening prevented by National Security operatives from boarding a British Airways flight to the United States of America, described the action and the attempted seizure of his passport, as illegal since he had not been informed of any intended interrogation by the BNI.
He said he was travelling to the US with his family — his wife and two children, aged two and four, for a “short vacation.”
Mr. Okudzeto-Ablakwa explained that the BNI had planned to invite Mr. Asamoah-Boateng this week for questioning into the award of a contract for the renovation of parts of the Information Ministry's building, but had a tip-off on Sunday evening that the former Minister was on his way out of the country.
According to him, the national security operatives therefore had to stop him at the airport, adding that the ex-minister was duly informed at the airport of the reasons he could not travel outside.
He said the BNI was in the process of formally inviting Mr. Asamoah-Boateng for questioning.
He described the outburst of the ex-minister and the action of his wife who snatched his husband's passport from the security operatives resulting in a scuffle, as unfortunate.
“The BNI takes serious view of the wife's action, which amounts to obstruction of justice,” he said.
He said Mrs. Asamoah-Boateng could have been allowed to board the flight “but for her unruly behaviour, which is actionable.”
Mr. Okudzeto-Ablakwa noted that the ex-minister's claim that the action of the BNI was against his human rights was misplaced, adding that the national security has the power to arrest parties they deem relevant to help investigations.
He explained that the BNI operatives were not wrong in trying to seize the passport of the former Minister, saying that “the passport is a government of Ghana property and can be revoked or seized when necessary.”
He said it was not the first time people deemed to be relevant in investigations were prevented from going out of the country, citing the cases of Fred Ohene-Kena, Kwesi Ahwoi, Victor Serlomey and John Martey Newman, all senior functionaries of the previous NDC administration who were stopped from travelling and whose passports were seized.
Mr Asamoah-Boateng has meanwhile denied suggestions that he was running away from justice.
He told the Times yesterday that he has had nothing to hide, and described the action by the BNI as “most unfortunate.”
He said he did not have any prior knowledge of being a subject of any investigations, and therefore he considered himself as a free man.
“I don't know the reason I was stopped, at the last minute after going through all departure formalities at the airport by the BNI operatives neither who possessed ID cards nor an arrest warrant,” he said.
He threatened to take legal action against the BNI which he claimed was a violation of his human rights.
A senior legal practitioner, A.G. Boadu, told the Times that the action of the BNI was not out of place.
He said the “power of arrest” accorded the security agencies, as enshrined in the Constitution, permits them to arrest and even prevent people from leaving the country during investigations.
“If the police or security agencies have reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime against the state, they can arrest him or her anywhere and at anytime,” he stressed.
He said once the former Minister was not arrested and detained for more than the stipulated 48hours, the question of a human rights abuse does not arise.
“People affected by such action can go to court for redress, but would have to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the action by the BNI is unlawful,” he said.
On the attempted seizure of the passport, Sam Okudzeto, a senior legal practitioner, told a radio station that it was illegal for the operatives to seize the passport of Mr. Asamoah-Boateng, also a former Member of Parliament for Mfantsiman West.
He said the travel passport is a right guaranteed by the Constitution and therefore should not have been seized without express direction of a court.
Witnesses at the Kotoka International Airport informed the Times that the incident was not without drama as the former minister's wife had to virtually wrench her husband's passport from the security operatives who had initially taken custody of it.
Her demands to see the identity of the operatives, as well as their warrant for preventing her husband from travelling drew blank, leading her to angrily take back the passport.
Her attempts to convince British Airways officials that they were legal travellers who should be taken in also failed, as the officials appear in no mood to engage in any debate with state security.
The BNI last week questioned former Deputy Information Minister, Frank Agyekum, over the award of the same contract on which Minister Asamoah-Boateng is expected to be quizzed.