“On that basis alone, we should have concerns now that the chief of defence force is in agreement with this [legislation],” he added.
At the committee stage of the House, when MPs went through the legislation clause-by-clause, the national security minister’s power to instruct the chief of Defence Force in relation to the new law was in fact removed.
That change, however, does not comfort the president of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions.
“Any country which grants police powers to the military is a military state; there is no other word for it,” said Joseph Remy.
Less deeply suspicious but nonetheless concerned, the President of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago, Seenath Jaira, shared his concerns about government, society and violent crime in a press release.
The senior counsel acknowledged that “traditional methods of law enforcement have failed; but at the same time we need to ensure that our constitutional rights are not eroded by the proposed measures”.
Joining the debate from public political platforms and on the national media, former Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj said it was never the intention of the Independence Constitution that soldiers would exercise police powers.
“It would be a mockery of the constitutional protection given to the police service and to the members of the public if members of the defence force are permitted to do police work,” Mr Maharaj said.
Another senior counsel, Martin Daly, said in his newspaper column that many changes had been made to the bill since its first entry to parliament, with “elementary mistakes” being corrected.
“The bill was less than half-baked. It was raw and inedible and still is in many parts,” wrote Mr Daly, a former independent senator.
Senior counsel Dana Seetahal observed that soldiers had been accompanying police on patrols in crime-ridden areas for more than 10 years without too much fuss.
She said that there had been nothing like the uproar being experienced now that the government was attempting to regularise the law by giving powers of arrest to soldiers.
“The answer must lie in the proclivity of the Minister of National Security [Jack Warner] to make wild statements, which foments mistrust in the government,” she wrote.
“The complaint is really as stated in a headline yesterday, "Dangerous to give Jack this power". It is not so much the issue or proposal, but who people perceive is behind it. “
Business sector support
But there are significant individuals and institutions giving support to the Bill.
One of them is the Chamber of Industry and Commerce of Trinidad and Tobago, which issued a press release.
It said that it “believes this measure can represent an effective weapon in the crime fighting arsenal at this time”.
The Chamber said that the “necessary checks and balance need to ensure no breaches of our constitutional rights occur”.
One business executive, Daphne Bartlett of the Energy Chamber, wrote that she preferred to “live in a police state compared to a criminal state”.
Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams added his voice, saying that he did not believe that “providing members of the defence force with the powers of arrest is essential in the fight against crime”.
At the same time, in a press release, acting Commissioner Williams supported the legislation, noting that there is a shortage of 1,500 police officers.
However, the President of the Police Social and Welfare Association, Anand Ramesar, said the police would find ways and means to oppose
the implementation of the legislation as “it would demoralise police officers and deter them from their duties”.
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Code of conduct
Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has given assurances that the chief of the defence force will implement a schedule of training and establish a code of conduct for soldiers before the legislation becomes effective.
On the overall anti-crime approach, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said in a statement that just because there were “sufficient numbers in parliament to avoid constitutional protections”, that did not mean the constitution should be amended without the support of the opposition.
The association, which represents attorneys practising in the criminal courts, said that “legislative packages have come and gone with little impact”.
On the proposed bill to curtail the right to bail, the CBA wanted to know “how will the deprivation of bail to these offenders impact upon the purported aim of this bill, which is to curb the incidence of violent crimes?”
To add to the legal views, Trinidad and Tobago’s Law Association questioned parts of the framework.
“The legislative removal of the right to bail from the jurisdiction of the judiciary offends the separation of powers and is inconsistent with our republican status as a democracy, since the courts have ruled that the grant or refusal of bail in a modern democratic state must be exercised by an independent judiciary,” it stated.
Interestingly, even though ordinary people are sick of violent crime, radio and TV talk shows have indicated there is serious public opposition to the bill, much of it underpinned by a suspicion of the government’s motives.
If it stays in place and begins to make a difference in Trinidad’s growing crime figures, it will obviously set a new benchmark in using laws to fight crime.
Could this unorthodox legislative approach to countering crime in several countries of the Caribbean become widespread as governments seek to find answers to preserving the rights of the many over those of the few?