Soldiers break down Debe protest camp

The drama unfolded at about 5 am, when heavily armed soldiers and police officers, led by Chief of Defence Staff Brigadier Kenrick Maharaj, accompanied by Warner and Minister in the Ministry Collin Partap, began dismantling the camp M2 Ring Road, Debe with heavy machinery including backhoes and trucks belonging to Ministry of Works and Infrastructure. The camp was blocking the site for the construction of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the $7.2 billion Point Fortin highway.

Eyewitness Clifford Rambharose, who was at the campsite when an estimated 30 soldiers and police officers arrived, said a senior police officer informed them they had five minutes to leave the site before it was demolished.

“We started to pack up the things that were in the camp because who going to stand up against soldiers with guns,” Rambharose said, adding the protesters used two pick-up vehicles to transport their materials from the campsite. He said Warner then entered the camp and assisted in taking out several items from inside the Hindu prayer room and placed it at the side of the road.

“I spent a month and a half at the camp and what really hurt was the manner that they came and said, ‘we giving all you five minutes to move out of here’,” he said, adding, “ Mr Jack Warner and his assistant came and looked on while the backhoe and the trucks broke the tent.” He said all the protesters could have done was engage in cross-talk with Warner who “just stand up there with his head held high and showing us a deaf ear, the only response we had was a smile and a happy gesture.”

“It was only when they cleared the prayer room that the backhoe moved in and started to grade down the area and then they moved to the tent,” he said.

Rambharose said Kublalsingh, who was not at the campsite, arrived 45 minutes after the demolition began and attempted to stop the soldiers from breaking down their tent.

“Mr Kublalsingh drove his car behind the truck where they were loading and he went in front the backhoe. Four soldiers surrounded him and started pushing him off under the tent but he resisted by standing up, barehanded against four armed soldiers with machine guns and they picked him up and started dragging him across to the market,” Rambharose said. “But he managed to escape and went back to the campsite and stood in front the backhoe and that was when the police officers came and handcuffed him and dragged him into the police jeep and carried him to the station,” he said.

Speaking to Newsday shortly after he was released from the San Fernando Police Station at about 11.40 am yesterday, Kublalsingh, his white jersey and pants still covered with dirt, said he had not been charged with any offence but had been warned by senior police officers to desist from taking part in any protest activity at the campsite.

“I was spoken to by three senior officers and I was told that I should desist from taking any further action of this sort. I told them I couldn’t give them any kind of assurance, that the people have to act and act decisively,” he said.

“I told them if I had broken any laws, that they would have to charge me. I should not get any concession before the State so they eventually released me.

No charges were laid against me,” Kublalsingh said, and described the police officers as “very friendly” and “very diplomatic.”

Kublalsingh was told that he had been accused of damaging an army vehicle and had also slapped a soldier, he laughed saying he was always on the defensive during the incident.

“I slapped no one, I was always on the defensive, I drove my car as close as possible to the camp, I didn’t hit any vehicle,” Kublalsingh said. “There were army officials there breaking down the camp and I challenged them.

I asked them to stop and there was a lot of jostling and they started to drag me out into the road and I went back again and they dragged me out again.”

When Newsday arrived at the site yesterday, two police officers were stationed at the entrance of M2 Ring Road leading to La Romaine, directing traffic away from the camp while heavily armed soldiers, operating backhoes and trucks, completed demolition of the camp.

Police officers from the Guard and Emergency Branch stood watch while protesters stood at the side, while chairs and other items from the camp lined the main road.

Two other protesters, Elizabeth Rambharose and Ramkaran Bhagwansingh, sat cross-legged on the ground praying while all around them the demolition of the camp proceeded.

A party of police officers spoke to them briefly and they left the site and joined their fellow protesters.

Their departure was a signal for the Brazilian contractor involved in building the San Fernando to Point Fortin highway, OAS Constantura, to immediately move onto the site with heavy machinery of its own which it used to level a field adjoining the camp site where protesters had planted cassava and fig trees.

However, according to attorney Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, who has been retained by the Re-route Movement, legal action would be filed against the State for the demolition of the camp site and to halt construction of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the highway.

“The law makes it clear under the State Lands Act of Trinidad and Tobago, if there is anyone squatting on State lands and they have been there for awhile, that the Government has a duty to serve them a notice and the Government has to take steps to take action in the magistrates’ court to get possession because there could be good reasons why the persons have to remain on the land for a period of time,” Maharaj said. “In this particular case, these people have put a camp on the land and they have been there for a period of time.”

Maharaj said a declaration would be sought from the court seeking damages against the two ministers and the State for breach of common law and constitutional rights. MSJ political leader David Abdulah, who arrived at the campsite at about 9.50 am, described the action as a “dastardly act” saying the rights of the people to engage in peaceful protest action had been violated.

Abdulah said the demolition was a “personal vendetta” against the committee that stood up against Warner when he was Minister of Works.

“Now that he is Minister of National Security he is using the big stick, illegally and unconstitutionally to direct the security forces to take action against civilians,” Abdulah said.

The Congress of the People (COP), a member of the People’s Partnership Government, yesterday said it was alarmed to learn that Government ministers (Warner and Partap) were involved in “a police-military operation” given the constitutional separation of the roles of elected and coercive arms of the State.

“The COP is of the view that an open and consultative approach to the claims of those with a different point of view, including protesters, is more likely to achieve mutually satisfactory and beneficial outcomes than violent confrontation on either side.

That is the spirit of the People’s Partnership approach to new governance,” COP deputy political leader Dr Anriudh Mahabir said in a statement.

He pointed out that Works and Infrastructure Minister Emmanuel George must lead the work of the Government at “the highest levels in this matter in light of the fact that this highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin is of great importance to the economy and the relief of hardship of people living on the South-West peninsula.”


"Soldiers break down Debe protest camp"

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