Persad-Bissessar announced a new clause to the Miscellaneous Provisions (Defence and Police Complaints) Bill to introduce a code of conduct that will regulate Defence Force members – drawn from the Regiment, Coast Guard, Air Guard and Defence Force Reserves – who are deployed alongside police on joint operations. She spoke hours before the bill passed in the House of Representatives with a special majority.
Yesterday’s sitting of the people’s court, the High Court of Parliament, seemed more reminiscent of the mood inside a court of law. Wearing a black suit with a white ruffled blouse, which brought to mind the Prime Minister’s court clothes from her practice as an attorney, Persad- Bissessar responded to criticisms of the legislation argument by argument.
The Prime Minister said the bill – which was previously called the Defence (Amendment) Bill but renamed during the final stages of the legislation in the House last night – would contain two new parts which will regulate how Defence Force members could act while on joint patrol.
One clause stipulates that the Chief of Defence staff is to make standing orders to establish a code of conduct to govern any member of the Defence Force deployed. Persad-Bissessar said a code of conduct that was used in 2011’s state of emergency will be duplicated for the purposes of complying with the law.
Further, another clause states that a person arrested by a member of the Defence Force shall “without delay and in any event as soon as practicable” be handed over to a senior police officer in charge of the operation or the nearest police station.
Additionally, there will be limits on what a Defence Force member can do, the Prime Minister said. Specially precepted officers will not be able to interrogate, lay charges, appear in court as prosecutors, or conduct investigations.
These new parts joined a list of amendments which had been circulated last Wednesday and Friday which inserted provisions in the original bill. Those provisions stipulated that: Defence Force members deployed shall be subject to the Police Complaints Authority; shall not be subject to directions of the Minister of National Security and that the law will have a shelf-life of two years. All of these amendments were passed at the committee stage last night.
Persad-Bissessar noted there are already several areas where non-police state officials perform police powers.
In particular, police powers have been allocated to civil servants acting under the: Customs Act, Motor Vehicle and Road Traffic Act, Immigration Act, Supplemental Police Act, Special Reserve Police Act, Municipal Corporations Act, the Defence Act, and even under the Forests Act, which sees forest rangers/officers having powers of arrest.The Prime Minister said legal opinions from Dana Seetahal SC and Fenton Ramsahoye QC concurred that the legislation did not need a special majority since it did not fundamentally alter any rights in the Constitution. Seetahal, she said, noted that the existing bills giving civil servants police powers were passed with simple majorities. Ramsahoye, Persad-Bissessar, said, was of the view that the bill could be justified as necessary in a democratic society. The dates of these opinions were not given.
Notwithstanding the legal opinions, the Government last night still opted to pass the bill with a special, three-fifths majority. Though Government MPs easily made up that threshold, the bill will require support from at least three Independent or Opposition Senators in the Senate.
The Prime Minister who is also chairman of the National Security Council, said members of the Coast Guard already have police powers but cannot exercise these on land. She noted the absurdity of a situation where Coast Guard officers who are in hot pursuit of suspects at sea, must simply let the suspects walk away once they touch land.
“The Coast Guard already have powers of arrest, seizure and detention,” she said. “With this increase they will be given additional powers. Their jurisdiction would be upgraded to come onto land.”
Persad-Bissessar said Defence Force officers have police powers in several Caribbean territories already including: Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana and Bahamas. In the case of Jamaica, the Prime Minister noted that the laws there gave their prime minister a role in the process, but her administration would insulate the process from politics and did so through one amendment to the legislation removing the reach of the Minister of National Security.
Persad-Bissessar said Justice Ulric Cross in reports in 1996 and 2007 to the State recommended that “military power be applied to civil power to combat serious crime.” However, she did not table the report or release it.
The Prime Minister disagreed with those objecting to the legislation on the basis of fundamental rights.
“They care about human rights but they do not care about the human rights of innocent law- abiding citizens who are being deprived not just of rights but of the right to live,” the Siparia MP said. She said while some have expressed fears that soldiers are trained to kill, these same soldiers were made in charge of several youth programmes under the last administration.
Persad-Bissessar rejected the argument that members of the Defence Force cannot be utilised for fighting crime because this is not within their function.
“They are institutions of the State and therefore they must be utilised in defence of the State and citizens of the State,” she said. “This is not inconsistent with the over-riding role of the defence force to protect and serve.” She noted that joint police/army patrols have been utilised since the 1970s under successive administrations, including the last. She also noted that joint patrols are already ongoing.
“It is nothing new,” she said. “It is happening as we speak. For the last 12 days up to today there has not been a single murder in Laventille.” To Port-of-Spain South MP Marlene McDonald, the Prime Minister asked, “Do you want to deny the members of your constituency of the protection they could have?”
Persad-Bissessar noted that the Chamber of Industry and Commerce as well as the San Fernando Business Association president Daphne Bartlett have backed the bill, in addition to the president general of Anjuman Sunnat ul Jammat Association (ASJA), Haji Yacoob Ali. The Prime Minister asked what were the solutions proposed by the Opposition. She rejected the suggestion that security be privatised, citing the experience of the previous regime’s Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT). She noted while there is talk that the State had “dismantled” the security agencies, including SAUTT, the facts show that when these agencies were in operation, crime rates were higher and were at record levels.
“There has been a lot of mis-information and at times distortion of the facts and the law,” she said. “The fact is that we are in a situation where we have a budget of $1 billion per year being expended on the Defence Force. Also, we have a situation in our country where citizens live in fear. We cannot continue to use the same strategies.”