Suspended PPP/C Member of Parliament (MP) Bishop Juan Edghill was yesterday arrested after an attempt to enter the compound of the Public Buildings, where the resumption of the consideration of the national budget estimates saw a brief opposition walkout over House Speaker Dr Barton Scotland’s decision to allow the approval without scrutiny of allocations slated to be examined at the previous day’s disrupted session.
Using their majority, the government members yesterday passed a motion for Edghill to be suspended for four sittings, prompting Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo to accuse both them and Scotland of attempting to “muzzle” the MP to avoid the scrutiny of key agencies. Jagdeo added that while the PPP/C stood in solidarity with Edghill, it would nevertheless participate in the examination of the remaining estimates.
The estimates passed without questions include those for the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Business, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Natural Resources and some for the Ministry of Presidency.
A day after he defied
Scotland’s directive that he withdraw from the parliament chamber, resulting in a skirmish between his fellow opposition MPs and police ranks who tried to eject him, Edghill and all other visitors to the Public Buildings were greeted by a heavy police presence. Edghill had been deemed out of order by Scotland, who was presiding as Chairman of the Committee of Supply at the time.
The ruckus resulted in the adjournment of Monday’s proceedings but PPP/C parliamentarians remained in the parliament chamber with Edghill until late into the night in a show of solidarity with Edghill.
It is still not clear who called the police—whom some opposition members claimed physically assaulted them—as Scotland on Monday evening said it was not him and when approached yesterday Clerk of the National Assembly Sherlock Isaacs said he was unaware.
It was the Sergeant-at-Arms who was asked to remove Edghill but when he refused the Speaker told him he could get help. The same Sergeant-at-Arms later informed members of the media that they had to leave the House after the Speaker left his chair but the media stood its ground.
Edghill was ruled out of order after he refused to take his seat following the expiry of the allotted time for the consideration of the estimates of the Ministry of the Presidency. The time was allotted at a business sub-committee meeting and according to opposition Chief Whip Gail Teixeira their members in that committee did not agree to the time that was allotted.
Police officers yesterday checked all vehicles as they entered the compound and some visitors were even asked to exit their vehicles at the gate and enter on foot. The atmosphere was tense and some PPP/C members were overheard complaining and questioning the need for the heightened police presence.
After his arrival yesterday, Edghill addressed members of the media at the police barricade and claimed that he was thwarted for some hours from reaching the location as unmarked vehicles kept “cutting across” in front of him during his journey.
He then took his briefcase out of his car and passed the police barricade with the intention of entering the compound of the Public Buildings but he was greeted by a line of police officers. He was later surrounded and told he was under arrest and he asked that he be read his rights and the offence be identified.
Fellow PPP/C MP Anil Nandlall then approached and informed that he was Edghill’s lawyer and he also questioned what offence had been committed, while pointing out that even if Edghill was barred from the House, it did not mean he could not enter the precincts of the Public Buildings as he was an elected Member of Parliament.
The police insisted that he was under arrest and later gave the reason as him “breaching the barricade.” Although an attempt was made to place him in a police vehicle, Edghill instead opted to “voluntarily walk” to the nearby Brickdam Police Station.
Nandlall later said Edghill was held for about two hours and the police subsequently apologised before directing that he sign a document in order to be released on his own recognizance.
Nandlall noted that when Edghill was about to sign, he saw he was being charged with the assault of a police officer. They objected to this and Edghill refused to affix his signature but nevertheless he was allowed to leave on his own recognisance. The attorney said Edghill’s arrest was unlawful since he did not commit a civil or criminal offence and he added that as his lawyer he would be filing suits against several persons in their official and individual capacities.
Meanwhile, following Edghill’s arrest, Scotland entered the House and said that the member had behaved extraordinarily and disregarded the direction of the Speaker and as a consequence no work was done on Monday afternoon.
“The conduct of Honourable member Juan Edghill is unprecedented in the annals of this House…,” the Speaker said and he then called on a government minister to move a motion for Edghill’s suspension.
Minister of Social Protection and government Chief Whip Amna Ally then stood and said following the “gross disorderly conduct” of Edghill, she was moving a motion under Standing Order 47 (3) for him to be suspended from the service of the Assembly for its next four sittings. The moving of the motion was greeted with loud resistance from the opposition members, while those on the government side thumped their tables.
The Speaker then said that Edghill remained suspended and noted that the Standing Order that was referred to authorises suspension until the end of the parliamentary session. He further commented that the four days was the most lenient.
Jagdeo then stood and attempted to address the House even as the Speaker told him there was no provision in the Standing Order for him to make a comment on the motion.
Nonetheless, Jagdeo said he wanted to record the opposition’s significant dissatisfaction with the comments on Edghill as well as the Speaker’s failure to address the “unprecedented presence” of police in the House and their assault on persons.
At that point, Jagdeo was heckled by government members and Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo was overheard calling him a “bald headed liar” twice. The Prime Minister himself was later called a “useless rubber stamp” by an opposition member.
“We believe it is an attempt to muzzle Mr. Edghill…,” Jagdeo said but he was then ordered to take his seat by the Speaker even as his colleagues shouted “let him speak.”
“You are a Speaker joker,” said PPP/C member Cornel Damon as the Speaker delivered his ruling and when he noted that Edghill’s conduct was unprecedented Ganga Persaud retorted, “that is your opinion.” “This is nonsense, this is dictatorship,” another opposition member heckled and yet another commented that it was “comedy hour show” and that “you are presiding over a dead Parliament.”
“Cowboy assembly, that is what we gat here,” another said as the Speaker asked for those in favour of Edghill being suspended for four days to say aye. There were loud “ayes” from the government side and loud “no’s” from the opposition members. There were then loud exchanges between the two sides.
At one time Jagdeo was overheard saying that the “Speaker is complicit,” prompting Scotland to warn that he should be “very careful” with what he says.
At a subsequent press conference, Jagdeo accused the government of orchestrating Monday’s events so as to ensure that there was no scrutiny of some the estimates and also to take the scandal of the ExxonMobil signing bonus off of the front pages of the newspapers.
According to Jagdeo, the signing bonus scandal is one of enormous proportions and governments have fallen over less around the world.
Edghill, Jagdeo noted, is one of the most “aggressive” speakers for the opposition since as a former finance minister he was very knowledgeable about the procedures.
He said even if Edghill were in breach of the Standing Orders, there were other ways to deal with the issue rather than bring police into the House. He suggested that the Speaker could have suspended the committee and invited the Chief Whips to discuss the matter instead of the police being called in.
He questioned who was responsible for the police’s presence since both the Speaker and the Clerk have indicated they were not responsible.
Nandlall, also commenting on the matter, said the expulsion is the gravest sanction and questioned what Edghill did to attract such a sanction.
Jagdeo pointed out that they are allowed seven days to scrutinise the estimates yet with more money being allocated and more programmes being added, the time was reduced to five days.
This process, according to Jagdeo, is the only one by which to hold the government accountable and he suggested that instead of passing all the estimates for Monday without question, the Speaker could have added another day.