Halfway through its five-year term of office and no closer to fulfilling its pre-election boasts on lowering Trinidad and Tobago’s crime levels, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s People’s Partnership government has come up with a raft of legislation to deliver on its promises.
But its latest legal onslaught is being seen by many as “dangerous”.
Before coming to power in May 2010, the PP had aimed to smash what many commentators continue to describe as a “criminal culture”.
In the last 13 years, the twin-island republic has suffered 4,353 murders
, with a detection rate averaging just 14%.
Now new laws are on the way. Already passed by the House of Representatives is the Defence (Amendment) Bill.
The bill seeks to give soldiers, in joint patrols with police officers, the same power to stop, detain, search and seize anyone suspected of criminal activities.
It is yet to go to the Senate.
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More to come
Under further legislation already in the pipeline, people charged with 30 or more crimes will be stripped of their constitutional right to bail.
Soon to follow will be a bill that seeks to remove jury trials for a list of 26 different offences.
Another piece of forthcoming legislation, still being drafted, includes permission for the government to resume the execution of convicted murderers by negating the Pratt and Morgan ruling of the British Privy Council.
The British court, this country’s final court of appeal, has ruled that governments wanting to execute convicted murderers must do so within five years after the first conviction.
It is a standard that Caribbean governments, which are still aligned to the Privy Council, find it almost impossible to achieve, given the slow process of their judicial systems.
In making the case for the Defence Bill, the prime minister came up with her own figures. She said in the House of Representatives
that between 2003 and 2012, there had been 3,915 murders.
She noted that since the peaks of 2008 (550 murders) and 2009 (509 murders), the death toll had declined.
However, the figures indicate that after a low of 354 murders in 2011, which was achieved as a direct result of a government-declared three-month state of emergency and a night-time curfew, killings went up again in 2012.
There were 379 murders in 2012, with murder figures for 2013 at 91 and already beyond the comparative figure for last year.
“Whilst the statistics will show we brought down serious crime, we have to improve on that, as citizens live in fear,” Ms Persad-Bissessar outlined in Parliament.
“We have 5,000 soldiers whom we are already paying and who are willing and able to serve. Why not use them?” she asked her parliamentary colleagues, including an apparently unimpressed opposition bench.
In support of her argument, the prime minister quoted from a 2007 report of retired Appeal Court Judge Ulric Cross.
He had recommended that the “Defence Act be amended to ensure that military power could be applied to aid civil power to secure and eliminate threats to national security and to combat serious crime and to maintain peace and order” .
In his presentation of the bill, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan echoed that view.
He said: “There is a changing role for the Defence Force in developing countries as those in the Caribbean.”
He contended that similar legislation had been passed in Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica and Guyana, allowing soldiers to work with the civilian security forces.
“This [the amended law] will provide us with the force we need to join the army and police, so that we take the fight against crime to the criminals,” he concluded.
After the debate, government MPs outvoted the opposition 29-11 to pass the legislation in the House of Representatives.
The government placed a sunset clause on the amendments, meaning they will lapse after two years.
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Opposition MP Colm Imbert, a man prone to dramatic language, has likened it to turning loose “killing machines” on the population.
For his part, the leader of the opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, says the new law is no solution: “It will demoralise the police and affect the defence force.”
He said the law would create “soldier police” and accused the government of having ulterior motives.
He pointed out that according to the legislation, the chief of defence force “shall in the exercise of power connected with such responsibility conform with any special or general directions of the minister of national security”.
Dr Rowley reminded MPs that, within days of Jack Warner being appointed minister of national security in June 2012, he had instructed the chief of defence force to use the might of soldiers against “defenceless citizens, women in particular, to break down a camp of protestors against where a road should pass”.
“On that basis alone, we should have concerns now that the chief of defence force is in agreement with this [legislation],” he added.
What the lawyers say
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”.
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?