She stated, however, that she was in the process of conducting a personal inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Section 34, and would be making a statement today after her weekly Cabinet meeting.
Her first comments on the controversy came hours after members of the business community, civil society and labour movement described Government’s handling of the proclamation and subsequent repeal of Section 34 as a plot to deceive the Parliament and the country, and demanded she clear the air on the issue.
However, in her preliminary statement, Persad-Bissessar gave no explanation for the insertion of the law into the Act last November or its early proclamation and made no mention of the possible legal fallout which may result from the Parliament’s rushed repeal of the law.
The Cabinet on August 9 approved a note for the early proclamation. That Cabinet approval was subsequently approved by the Cabinet on August 16. The proclamation was dated August 28, and became effective August 31.
“Soon after Section 34 was proclaimed, the Director of Public Prosecutions expressed concerns to the Attorney General (Anand Ramlogan) regarding the implications and consequences of the event,” the Prime Minister said in a statement hours after she declined reporters’ questions during a tour of Laventille.
“The Attorney General sought an immediate audience with me and having examined the matter myself, I was satisfied that the consequences and far-reaching implications of this section were not consistent with Government policy.”
Persad-Bissessar continued, “In the circumstances, I gave instructions for the Parliament to be convened immediately to consider a Bill to repeal Section 34. I also summoned the Cabinet to an emergency meeting to discuss the matter.”
“The Government therefore moved swiftly to successfully reverse the ill-effects and unintended consequences of this section,” she argued.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that she had remained silent on the matter since news of applications being filed by two UNC patrons were reported, saying it would have been “injudicious.”
“Apart from taking immediate and necessary action to repeal Section 34, I chose to remain silent on the issue of its early proclamation because a premature commentary on the matter before all information became available to me would have been injudicious,” she said. “Since then I have been personally enquiring into the circumstances that created the situation before us today and will be issuing a full statement on the matter tomorrow, Thursday 20th September after Cabinet is concluded.” She did not elaborate on the focus of her inquiries.
The Prime Minister had remained silent since reports surfaced on September 9. After a special “emergency” Cabinet meeting last Tuesday she did not address the press, sending Attorney General Ramlogan to deal with the issue. When the House of Representatives and the Senate sat to pass legislation to repeal Section 34 last week she did not speak, rising only to announce the Budget date.
Five interest groups yesterday issued a joint demand for a detailed explanation from the Prime Minister, and called on her to hold accountable those responsible for the “deliberate attempt...to deceive our Parliament and by extension, the citizens of TT” about Section 34, was made yesterday afternoon by five interest groups.
Representatives of the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute (TTTI), the TT Manufacturers Association (TTMA), the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN), the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) and Fixin’ T&T all got together at TTTI offices at Fernandes Industrial Centre, Eastern Main Road, Laventille, to voice their grave concerns about Government’s handling of the matter.
Reading from a prepared statement on the group’s behalf, TTTI president Deryck Murray said the group called on Persad-Bissessar “to make a full statement to the Parliament and the nation to explain how these particular clauses (of Section 34) came to be proclaimed and repealed.”
Murray made it clear the group would not accept any comments about “moving on”, as had been previously suggested by several ministers, including Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal.
“The Honourable Prime Minister’s statement must go beyond asking the population ‘to move on’ and must address the question of accountability with respect to those who have transgressed...This group will not just move on as is being suggested, from the perceived plot to pervert Parliament,” Murray declared.
Similar sentiments were also expressed yesterday by the TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce (Chamber), which didn’t mince words as it rejected a recent comment by Justice Minister Herbert Volney that the Section 34 controversy was “a ten-day wonder.”
In a two-page statement which did not mention Volney by name, the business association said “this matter is certainly not a ten-day wonder, and the Chamber calls for an immediate and satisfactory public explanation of the reasons for the early proclamation of this Section.”
The Chamber noted it remained very concerned about “the lack of transparency with regards to the premature proclamation of Section 34 and despite the many calls from several quarters for an explanation for this, there still remains no satisfactory explanation by the Government on this matter of national concern.”
Some in Government have described the early proclamation of Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act as an error, one that was swiftly dealt with by Parliament when it repealed the controversial section last week.
This reasoning was found to be lacking by the Chamber, which yesterday stated “whether this course of action was done with intent or in error, this issue must not be swept aside and persons should be held accountable for this grievous act.”
The move to repeal Section 34 was hastened by reports that UNC financiers Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson and others charged in the $1.6 billion Piarco Airport corruption case were moving to have the courts dismiss their matters, based on this law, because they have been ongoing for ten years.
When first debated by the House of Representatives last November, the Section provided a judge with the discretion to dismiss matters before the court for up to ten years from the date indictments were filed against accused persons.
This provision was changed to ten years from the date the alleged offences occurred. It was laid as an amendment and the Act was passed in the Senate, and then in the Lower House without any parliamentarian foreseeing the implications of the clause for such cases as the Piarco corruption case.
The Act was not proclaimed at that time and an assurance was given by Volney that it would not be implemented until the Judiciary was properly equipped to deal with enforcing the law which eliminates preliminary inquiries.
However, it surfaced that only Section 34 was proclaimed on August 31, triggering moves by the Piarco accused to petition the High Court for the charges to be dismissed and for them to be declared not-guilty. Their court action was filed on September 10, the day before the Prime Minister hastily convened Parliament to repeal the clause.
As a consequence, the Piarco accused and others who applied for their matters to be dismissed under Section 34 have cried abuse of their rights and are pursuing legal action on this issue.
Also, the DPP and Judiciary have since declared they were not consulted about the early proclamation of Section 34, with the Chief Justice, this past Monday, saying rushing the law would have led to chaos in the judicial system.
Questioned about the group’s plan of action if the Prime Minister fails to respond in suitable manner to their call for action, JCC president Afra Raymond said, “We are not moving on. Our country has just been through a very grievous episode. It was an attack on our fundamental institutions, our closing statement (referred to) a plot to pervert Parliament, (so) we’re not going to sit quietly by and no, we’re not moving on.”Fixin’ T&T’s director, Kirk Waithe, added that this was about more than the laws of TT, it was about the perception of corruption among government officials and the impact of this on our economy and potential investment by locals and foreigners alike.
“A big part of the lag in our economy is the crisis of confidence and trust. And this (Section 34) doesn’t help it, this erodes confidence at every level,” Waithe said.
Murray also spoke about the economic impact of this and other issues on TT’s reputation, saying, “The Global Economic Forum’s (Global Competitiveness) Index...shows Trinidad and Tobago continuing to decline. Some of factors that go into that decline...involve crime, corruption and a lack of trust in politicians. These are factors listed in international reports and the country must take notice of those and they must expect their leaders, our leaders, to take a lead and start addressing these problems.”
The Chamber also noted TT’s decline on the Global Competitiveness Index’s rankings in “several important areas, most notably public trust in politicians, Irregular payments and bribes, Favourtism in decisions of government officials, and Transparency of government policymaking. Incidents such as the Section 34 controversy,” the Chamber added, “only serve to further exacerbate, both locally and internationally, that lack of trust.”
Meanwhile, the cross-section of business, labour and civil society also sought Persad-Bissessar’s commitment that:
1) The course of justice will be allowed to proceed with respect to the Piarco Airport accused;
2) The Bernard Report into the Piarco Airport project will be immediately published;
3) The Uff (Report’s) recommendations relating to the construction industry and Udecott will be promptly implemented via a Working Group, as promised in 2010; and
4) The draft bill on a new public procurement system prepared by the private sector/civil society group (JCC, TTTI, TTMA and TT Chamber of Commerce) and formally endorsed by FITUN and AmCham (American Chamber of Commerce of TT), will be laid in Parliament immediately for debate at the start of the next session with a view to the new system being made law within three months.