Independent senators blank T&T Govt on Defence Bill; Senate adjourned

(Trinidad Express) In the face of solid opposition from the Independent senators against the measure seeking to give powers of arrest to soldiers, Government backed down yesterday.

Government, which needed the support at least four Independent senators, was hoping to conclude and pass the Defence and Police Complaints Authority Amendment Bill, 2013 yesterday. Debate began in the Senate at Tower D, International Waterfront Centre, Port of Spain, on Tuesday. The bill requires a three-fifths majority, the equivalent of 19 votes, of which Government has 15 votes.

But Government was forced to suspend the debate to April 23 after it became clear that if taken to a vote, it would fail. Government now has to return to the drawing board to decide whether to make fundamental changes or withdraw the bill.

Either way, it is a serious slap for the Government, which had argued vociferously that giving powers of arrest to members of the military would be a vital crime-fighting tool.

The President’s men and women (Independents) were not convinced, however. Elton Prescott SC and Corinne Baptiste-McKnight, who spoke when debate began on Monday, raised critical concerns, which left their support in serious doubt.

Yesterday, Subhas Ramkhelawan was even more explicit, stating, “I would not support any situation where we give carte blanche authority of arrest to members of the Defence Force”. The statement brought loud table-thumping support from the Opposition while the Government benches remained stoic in their silence.

Ramkhelawan also said he would not support the idea that the Code of Conduct prepared by the Chief of Defence Staff should come after the passing of this legislation. Ramkhelawan said it (the Code of Conduct) was too important a matter to come “cat in bag…after the fact”. It brought more desk-thumping from the Opposition.

Ramkhelawan said the Commissioner of Police’s performance is assessed, determined and reported on, with a recommendation made by the Police Service Commission, which is indirectly reportable and accountable to the President of the Republic, not the Cabinet.

But he said in the army, the Chief of Defence Staff is reportable and accountable to the Minister of National Security and the Defence Council, which is made of political figures.

“Therefore, his job is circumscribed by political elements,” he said. “So when we say, in this piece of legislation that for matters of policing, he would not be accountable to the Minister of National Security, we miss some of the things (that happen) when you are caught in the political maelstrom.

“And we have seen it before where the Minister of National Security takes a trip to a road project in the South (Debe), together with the Chief of Defence Staff, to break down sheds (of the Re-Route Movement).

“I would be very concerned if in that situation, the Minister of National Security were to accompany the Chief of Staff and, looking on, you…have a situation of him saying: “Arrest all dem fellas!” And the Chief of Defence would say, ‘When we are dealing with policing matters, I don’t have to listen to you….’ It can have a very perverse impact, Ramkhelawan said, suggesting the Chief of Defence Staff could be out of a job.

He said while some members of the public say they support the measure of “bringing out the army to lick them (the criminals) up”, “if the same army starts to arrest your friend, nenen, son, daughter, the emotional response would be very different…. And, therefore, I strongly support the idea of the separation of duties…we have pursued…since Independence”, he said, adding it was “foul” to consider that the army could be “both fish and fowl”.

Government did not have a good day as the strength of its case was undermined by the apparently greater force of the arguments of not only the Independents but the Opposition bench.

Opposition Senator Faris Al-Rawi provided strong research, forcefully pointing to what he saw as the legal pitfalls of the bill. He rebutted the argument advanced by the Attorney General that the bill was seeking to do what had been done in other jurisdictions.

In fact, Al-Rawi said contrary to the statements made by the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice, he could find no precedent for giving the military what Government was seeking to do in this legislation.

He said he looked at the laws of the UK, Northern Ireland, Italy, Australia, Singapore, Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda and found not a single case of the army having carte blanche police powers as contemplated under the bill.

Noting that Ramlogan suggested the laws of Jamaica gave soldiers the authority to arrest, Al-Rawi said Ramlogan never told the House that the Constable Force Act in Jamaica was amended to remove the power of arrests (originally) given to soldiers.

“He did not tell us that in 1994, there was an amendment to the act, and he did not tell us that the Suppression of Crime Act 1974 in Jamaica (which gave the police the power to call in the army) was repealed.

“He did not tell us that in the period 1990 to 1993, there was a massive public outcry at the army’s use of force after the death of three people in custody, and there was a report by the National Task Force on Crime in 1993 which specifically said they must repeal that legislation.

“Instead, he left us with the impression that the Jamaican security forces (soldiers) had the power to arrest; that is the opposite of the truth,” Al-Rawi stated to desk-thumping.

He concluded that the bill ran afoul of the reasonableness and proportionality that the Constitution requires in any law that seeks to interfere with fundamental rights.

 

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