Photos by Keno George
The start of the consideration of the estimates of the revenue and expenditure for 2018 descended into chaos yesterday when opposition MPs faced off against police over a bid to physically remove member Juan Edghill from the parliament chamber and PPP/C members claim they were assaulted in the ensuing melee.
Edghill’s staunch refusal to comply with a directive to immediately withdraw by Speaker Barton Scotland, who deemed him “out of order,” ultimately resulted in the adjournment of the proceedings but nonetheless he and fellow opposition parliamentarians remained in the chamber up until 10pm, when the sitting was originally slated to end. By that time, the power had already been shut off and as a result there was no air conditioning or Wi-Fi in the chamber.
“This is a matter of principle. The government don’t want scrutiny,” Edghill claimed yesterday and a similar line was taken by other PPP/C members, including Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo.
The National Assembly had resolved itself into the Committee of Supply when Edghill was ordered to leave and with his refusal, the Speaker—who was Chairman of the Committee at the time—left his chair and said he would return after Edghill was removed.
There was debate as to whether the police had the authority to enter the chamber, as PPP/C Chief Whip Gail Teixeira said they had none and former speaker and current Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman said they did.
After the Speaker had left his chair and the police’s attempts to eject Edghill proved futile, Trotman approached Teixeira in a bid to work out a compromise. She suggested that the Speaker “call off the police” and meet with her, Edghill and Jagdeo, who was not present at the time.
However, Trotman said he could not suggest to the Speaker whom he should meet with but attempted to assure Teixeira that should Edghill leave the House he would not be arrested. He said he had approached Teixeira as a longstanding Member of Parliament and as a former Speaker who did not want to see the National Assembly descend into further chaos.
Teixeira said she could not take his word and pointed out that the Speaker did not even apologise or make a speech about the woman dressed as Santa Claus who had entered the House last week during Jagdeo’s budget debate presentation.
‘Out of order’
The confusion started shortly before a scheduled break in the afternoon when Scotland decided that he would allow no further questions on the estimates for the Ministry of the Presidency, since the allotted time for it had expired.
He was about to put the various budgetary allocations to the committee to be passed but Edghill stood and attempted to ask a question. He was, however, informed by Scotland that the time was agreed upon and they would stick to it.
“I am not entertaining any further questions,” Scotland said to Edghill, who nevertheless persisted.
Edghill, who had a belligerent attitude throughout the morning session and at one time was cautioned for shouting, continued pointing out that there were four other agencies under the ministry and more time was needed to scrutinise the estimates.
Scotland told him to take his seat and he refused and he was then ordered to be removed from the House since he was out of order.
A defiant Edghill shouted that he was not leaving and as Scotland called for the Sergeant-at-Arms to escort him out, he took his seat and refused to be move.
Under the Standing Order 47 (2), the Speaker as the Chairperson of a committee can order any Member whose conduct “is grossly disorderly to withdraw immediately from the Assembly during the remainder of that day’s Sitting and may direct such steps to be taken as are required to enforce this order.”
Standing Order 47 (5) adds that a Member who is directed to withdraw shall forthwith leave the Assembly and its precincts, while Standing Order 47 (6) states that if any Member who has been directed to withdraw refuses at any time to obey the direction of the Speaker, “the Speaker shall call the attention of the Assembly to the fact that recourse to force is necessary in order to compel obedience to his or her direction, and the Member named by him or her as having so refused to obey his or her direction shall thereupon without further question put be suspended from the service of the Assembly during the remainder of the Session.”
As the Sergeant-at-Arms remonstrated with him, Edghill, with the support of his colleagues, remained seated. Scotland informed that the Sergeant-at-arms should seek assistance and left the chamber.
Edghill stated further that he was not moving since he was an elected member of the House. Two police officers then entered the chamber and attempted to get Edghill out but their attempts were in vain. His colleagues later surrounded him, circling him with their arms, and they shouted that they all would have to be arrested since Edghill had parliamentary immunity and could not be touched by the officers.
The officers left without touching Edghill and he and his colleagues burst into songs, including Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up.’
After some time, several police officers, including Commander of ‘A’ Division Marlon Chapman, entered the House and they had discussions with various opposition members. By then former education minister Priya Manickchand and former attorney general Anil Nandlall, who were not initially present, joined them.
Soon, loud screams, and shouts of “rape” pierced the chamber after police officers attempted to eject Edghill, while opposition members warned them that they were breaking the law since parliamentarians have immunity while in the National Assembly.
While senior police officers were standing to the side, about five officers dressed in blue approached Edghill, who was at the time surrounded by his colleagues, and attempted to remove him. There was a scuffle and the women MPs were heard screaming loudly. PPP/C MP Dr. Frank Anthony was almost being lifted out the House as he cried out “police brutality!” PPP/C parliamentarians Cornel Damon and Needkumar were overheard shouting “Rape! Rape! Police raping female parliamentarians!”
Because of the huddle, it was difficult for this newspaper to observe what was happening in the inner circle but two officers were seen attempting to remove Edghill and they were then surrounded by the other parliamentarians. After a few minutes of screams and scuffling, the officers withdrew. One was seen with the some of the buttons of his uniform torn off.
Manickchand, with tears streaming down her cheeks, said that she was cuffed and punched by the officers in her stomach and shoulders. She also said that she was slammed against the chairs and table in the process and there were a few visible bruises on her hands.
A video later seen by this newspaper showed PPP/C MP Harry Gill assaulting the same officer whose buttons were torn off and MP Ganga Persaud was seen hitting him in the back at least once.
Hours after, Jagdeo met with the Speaker. He subsequently informed that he had suggested that the Speaker adjourn the session for the day and resume today so that the situation could be “defused.” However, this suggestion, according to him, was not accepted by the Speaker and as a result the opposition members decided to remain in the House until the end of the day.
By the time Jagdeo met with the Speaker, the electricity had already been turned off. While the other PPP/C parliamentarians took turns leaving the House for fresh air, Edghill remain planted on his chair and food was even taken in for him in the House and he ate while surrounded by his colleagues.
“I pointed out to him about the frustration on our side in relation to the constant attempt of the government to avoid scrutiny. The consideration of the estimates, according to the Standing Orders, could take as much as seven days. They have reduced it to five days even though we are dealing with a budget that is over $265 billion…,” Jagdeo told reporters.
He also charged that the estimates were inaccurate and should be withdrawn as they do not reflect the US$18 million signing bonus that was given to the government by ExxonMobil, which should have been in the Consolidated Fund.
Jagdeo added that the situation boiled down to scrutiny and Edghill’s “prolific role” in asking questions, He said while the Speaker insisted that Edghill leave parliament, it had gone past his ruling to the actions of some of the Parliament officials who called in the police, whom he contended assaulted some of his members.
Earlier, Jagdeo said he was holding the Speaker personally responsible for the alleged assault of his members, while noting that they could not arrest the person who entered the House as Santa Claus last week but members of parliament were being assaulted in the chamber.
“This is not going to go down easy in this House. It is unprecedented and I think it is designed to distract attention from the (signing bonus). This is all carefully worked out. I have seen egregious breaches in the House from the other side that he refused to act on and on this issue suddenly the police is called in,” Jagdeo said.
‘A new low’
Several government ministers condemned the actions by the PPP/C members, with Trotman deeming it a red herring and he called the assertion that enough time was not being given for the estimates to be scrutinized ridiculous.
He said that the National Assembly had descended to a new low and called upon the opposition to try to de-escalate the situation, as the Speaker cannot be expected to resume the Chair where there is no order.
He said as a minister of government he is quite distressed at what he sees as a pattern of disrespect. He recalled that no matter how bad relations got in the past, there has never been the kind of disrespect as was seen with recent protest of President David Granger by opposition MPs or yesterday. He also mentioned the Santa Claus entering the chamber last week as a form of disrespect.
Minister of State Joseph Harmon pointed out that the Speaker made a ruling after several warnings to the Edghill.
“This has nothing to do with who can speak; it is a question about the rule of law. The Speaker is the person who controls the business of this House. Mr. Edghill or no other member of the House can decide he will violate the rules of the House by refusing to take action when the Speaker says so,” Harmon said.
He said the PPP/C must know that the Speaker’s ruling must be obeyed and that a pattern of disrespect has been observed by members of the opposition since they had protested and heckled President David Granger during his last address to the National Assembly.
The Department of Public Information later quoted Minister within the Ministry of Natural Resources Simona Broomes as saying that she was disappointed with the opposition’s trivialization of rape. “Regardless of what has happened, I sat there and male and female Members of Parliament shouting rape, rape, rape. It was recorded as if rape was a joke,” the minister noted.