Sunday 24th December, 2006

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Complex issues of the Bail Bill

Both Houses of Parliament have now passed the Bail (Amendment) Bill extending by three months the mandatory no bail provision in the existing legislation for persons accused of kidnapping for ransom. Needing a special majority, in the Lower House, the COP joined with the PNM to ensure passage, while in the Upper House, PNM and Independent Senators voted in support. In both Houses, the UNC voted against.

There were two highly significant aspects to the debate in the Lower House: the sharp contrast in the approach of the divided opposition to politics and the national interest; and the robust winding-up by the AG who confronted head-on the taunts of the Opposition concerning the criminal justice system’s difficulties. Remarkably, the media have largely ignored the AG’s powerful and pointed response.

Clearly, the unity of the original UNC Parliamentary Opposition was always tenuous since its members hold such profoundly differing political views on critical national issues.

In introducing the Bail Bill, the AG updated the House on the Breathalyser Bill, the DNA Bill, the Criminal Injuries (Amdt) Bill and Regulations, and the Equal Opportunities Bill (EOB) all of concern to the Opposition. They were previously the subject of crime talks between Government and Opposition and their enactment had been a condition of Opposition support for the Police Reform Bills which, up to then, the UNC insisted should be preceded by Constitution Reform.

The first two bills said the AG were before a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee, Cabinet has approved the Criminal Injuries Bill and all four Bills would be presented to the House within 60 days. The AG promised a properly certified, compliant with the Constitution EOB, would be among them in contrast to UNC’s hastily enacted EOB twice ruled unconstitutional and currently on appeal to the Privy Council.

Separating the UNC and COP in this debate was their discordance in approaching the public interest. Both sides were critical of the Government’s performance, but at crunch time UNC opportunistically said no, COP, yes. Kamla claimed the Government was not serious about dealing with crime but engaging in a cosmetic public relations exercise. “You cannot fight crime,” she insisted, “if your justice system is broken. The justice system … is totally broken and in a state of collapse. What are you doing?”

COP’s support clearly reflected its political priority of promoting the public interest. Caroni East MP Ganga Singh said it most unambiguously: “There are those who believe that when they are in Opposition, the best approach for the displacement of a government is to allow chaos to reign … therefore, in the promotion of chaos, you promote the unravelling of the society regardless of the consequences … I do not and we on this side do not share that point of view. There are those who believe in that unraveling … they would become the beneficiary … that would catapult them into government. We on this side speak of the new politics that transcends that kind of narrow parochial approach.”

In response, the AG, blunt and brutal, clinically demolished the UNC which he accused of failing the country miserably. In denying its allegation that the Government was bent on destroying certain persons instead of dealing with the criminal justice system, the AG insisted the Government’s first task was returning the rule of law to T&T, ensuring one law for all, rich or poor, big or small, former Prime Minister or present AG.

The AG then advanced 12 reasons why the criminal justice system was in difficulty: including problems at the top—a Prime Minister becoming a convicted criminal; difficulty with the leadership of the justice system; a former AG on a criminal charge of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice being freed after the files from the preliminary enquiry mysteriously disappeared and a witness for the prosecution in the said matter murdered; the efforts of those who abuse our fundamental rights and freedoms, so that the balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the many, lose equilibrium.

The goal of our criminal justice system, said the AG, must be to punish the guilty, acquit the innocent, deter potential perpetrators and rehabilitate offenders through a good state prosecution service, a good court system, a good Criminal Bar whose members recognise their duty to court, country and client, good law enforcement services and a good citizenry prepared to do its civic duty, because a weakened criminal justice system is a problem for every T&T citizen. The Government is acting in areas within its purview.

Additionally, a criminal court committee including representatives from the Judiciary, the Ministry of the AG, the DPP, members of the Criminal Bar has been meeting; consideration is being given to the creation of a drug user’s court; the finalisation of the regulations under the Justice Protection Act will allow for its proclamation.

These may not be enough as Opposition, Government and this newspaper have all implicitly recognised. Will Parliament and media support the needed measures?

The Opposition Leader asked “Why do you not put in place the legislation that would really deal with crime? Why do you not give the police the technology they need?” COP’s Leader commended the DPP and read into Hansard remarks attributed to the DPP: “‘As a country, T&T had to consider if other tools like wiretapping and recorded information should not be admissible in court?’”

This newspaper, editorially, (29.3.05) called for an intelligence-driven approach to crime management.

While the AG acknowledged: “Whether we like it or not, the effective administration of the criminal justice system requires certain national security secrets and systems which sometimes cannot be transparent, working with other governments and also innovation … I have used the resources and continue to use the resources of the US on every occasion that I can do so, to bring wrong-doers to justice. This is what this government has to do; faced with the realities on the ground with our criminal justice system.”

The national community must come to terms with complex issues like these as it seeks satisfaction of its demand for public safety and public order.

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