State of Emergency in More Ways Than One

¿Why the Trinidad and Tobago government imposed a State of Emergency (SOE) on Aug. 21?

CENTRE: ESC Chairman Khafra Kambon; RIGHT: Culture Minister Joan Yuille-Williams

PORT OF SPAIN, Sep 5, 2011 (IPS) – Ancel Roget believes he knows why the Trinidad and Tobago government imposed a State of Emergency (SOE) on Aug. 21 and used its majority in the Parliament to extend it for another three months.

Roget is the president of the powerful Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) which, along with 18 other trade unions, is planning a nationwide strike, accusing the Kamla Persad Bissessar administration of refusing to lift a five-percent cap on wages in its negotiations with public service workers.

«We are firm, if we were not before, that this state of emergency was not necessary and that it was called to deal with the campaign that we initiated to raise public awareness,» he said, adding that the government saw the SOE as a way «to kill more than one bird with the same stone».

The National Workers Union (NWU) said that the government was using the state of emergency as a pretext for an «assault on freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of movement and freedom of expression».

The government used its overwhelming majority in the Parliament on Sunday to extend the SOE. And while it did reduce the eight-hour curfew to six hours, it has brushed aside the unions’ position, insisting that the SOE was meant to prevent bloodshed.

National Security Minister retired Brigadier John Sandy, defending the SOE, told Parliament that if the SOE had not been implemented, what would have happened would have made tragic events in Trinidad in 1990 seem like a «Christmas party» in comparison.

In 1990, members of the radical Jamaat Al Muslimeen group tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the then-government of ANR Robinson. They killed at least 24 people, including a legislator, during their assault on the police building and Parliament in which they held a number of people, including Robinson, hostage.

The government argued that recent successes by the security forces against those involved in the illegal drug trade, including a multi- million-dollar bust at the island’s international airport last month, had made the country vulnerable to planned retaliations that could have only resulted «in senseless, violent bloodshed and mayhem».

Moreover, officials pointed to the murder of 11 people over a 48-hour period last month to justify the SOE and, according to Prime Minister Persad Bissessar, the murders were evidence that public safety threats were «real and imminent».

Addressing Parliament on Sunday, Bissessar said that the declaration of the SOE had caught the criminals off guard and that «the crisis has been averted».

Promising the «war on crime» would continue, Bissessar told Parliament more than 33 guns and 1,700 rounds of ammunition had been seized since Aug. 21.

The government has also brushed aside claims that the SOE had hurt the country’s international image and Foreign Minister Suruj Rambachan said officials had held talks with the diplomatic community and that it was «in full support of what the government…was doing».

The main private sector grouping here said the SOE could only be seen as «a stop-gap measure and not a strategy» to curb violent crime in the country.

But not everyone was buying the government’s explanation for the SOE, with the main opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) urging the authorities to disclose just what «crisis» had been averted.

Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley said the SOE had been announced at a time when the commissioner of police, Dwayne Gibbs, and his deputy, were out of the country.

Also speaking to Parliament, Rowley asked why the commissioner had been allowed to leave the country if the emergency was serious enough to warrant a crackdown on rights and freedoms.

«It either was not viewed as serious or the commissioner of police was irresponsible,» Rowley said.

The opposition contends that the government, eager to maintain claims there has been a decrease in murders over the past few months, panicked following the 11 murders in a «knee jerk» reaction. According to the opposition, the situation could have been dealt with using already-enacted legislation such as the Anti-Gang Act 2011 or the Bail Amendment Act 2011 that allows for the detention of persons for up to 120 days without bail.

The non-governmental organisation Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (WIAND) said that even though it supports the government’s efforts to reduce armed violence and criminality, the SOE could «potentially create an environment for human rights abuses».

Over the weekend, the South Africa-based World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) urged the government not to extend the SOE. It argued that, by using the anti-gang and anti-bail legislations, «the state has effectively been able, under the guise of ‘prevention’, to detain persons falling within the vaguely-defined category of ‘members of a gang’ and to hold them without laying formal charges for up to 120 days».

Since the SOE came into effect, the authorities say 1,356 people have been detained but, to date, no one has yet been brought before the three-member tribunal established by the Chief Justice Ivor Archie to review their cases.

The government has said it will establish a high-powered legal team to assist the police in the processing, case preparation and case flow management of persons arrested during the SOE.

It said an information desk would also be established within the police service to assist families who believe their loved ones might have been arrested. But in a country where the descendants of early African slaves and Indian indentured labourers account for almost 90 percent of the 1.3 million population, the SOE has also brought allegations of racial discrimination.

Chair of the Emancipation Support Committee (ESC), Khafra Kambon, told a news conference that the government, in its anti-crime initiative, is «treading on slippery slopes» and that «African communities are being targeted.»

While Sandy told Parliament that the majority of crimes here were being committed by Afro-Trinidadians, who he said comprise the majority of the prison population, the opposition say that the police raids were targeting persons of that colour who were being trucked «away…like cattle».

The government has said that allegations of racial profiling are unfair, but newspaper columnist Raffique Shah warned the racial undercurrent «could prove to be explosive» if the situation is not dealt with immediately.

In his Sunday column, Shah wrote «one gets the impression that the police…have been arresting young men willly-nilly by race and age profiling.»


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