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Tuesday 25 September 2018
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Robinson recalls his infamous order: ‘Attack with full force’

MORE than 20 years after he was held hostage in the Parliament Chamber at the Red House in Port-of-Spain, and his Government overthrown by 114 Muslim insurgents, former President Arthur NR Robinson yesterday testified before the Commission of Inquiry established to probe events surrounding July 27, 1990.

With a steady and strong voice, and remarkable recollection of the events that took place on July 27, 1990, Robinson gave details of what took place inside the Red House, which was taken over by the Jamaat al Muslimeen members for five days before an amnesty was arrived at, and the hostages released.

His now infamous order to the local military to “attack with full force,” was repeated by the man himself as he recounted his ordeal.

He described the men who took over the Red House — the seat of the Parliament — as Muslim fanatics who had no regard for the law.

Robinson, during his testimony, also spoke of a “love note” he received from his wife while being held captive, and the emotions he felt.

He also described a tenuous relationship between the Government and the Muslimeen group, saying they were lawbreakers who disregarded court orders to desist from occupying State lands to resorting to illegal means to pay for their construction efforts, and the feeding and clothing of their young members.

Special arrangements had to be made for the taking of evidence from the former President. Instead of testifying from the witness box, a table was arranged in the middle of the courtroom at the Caribbean Court of Justice, Henry Street, Port-of-Spain, for Robinson.

He was wheeled into the courtroom, accompanying him were his daughter, Ann Margaret, two policemen, and a female member of his staff.

His daughter opted not to sit next to her father as he gave his testimony, although permission was given by commission chairman, Sir David Simmons, and chose to sit in the public gallery.

After complaining of the unsteadiness of his wheelchair, Robinson was given a more sturdy seat and lead counsel for the commission Avery Sinanan, SC, was asked by the former president to sit next to him at his right, instead of the bar table, as he was unable to hear the questions being asked.

After the commissioners — chairman Sir David, vice-chairman Sir Richard Cheltenham, Dr Eastlyn Mc Kenzie, Diana Mahabir-Wyatt and Dr Hafizool Ali Mohammed — were introduced to Robinson by Sinanan, he began his testimony.

He said on the morning of July 27, 1990, he had travelled to Tobago to witness the damage done to the island by tropical storm, Arthur. He said he returned to Trinidad at about 5.30 pm and went to the Parliament.

Robinson said he chose to go to the Parliament because there was a debate on the corrupt practices of the former PNM regime, taking place called the O’Halloran debate.

“ It was important to my Government at the time because of corruption by the previous government,” he said, adding that his Government was involved in exposing this corruption.

“The debate was a crucial one,” he said. After taking his seat next to former Attorney General Anthony Smart, Robinson said he heard a noise in the Parliament and then the noise of gunshots, crackling of broken glass falling on the floor of the Parliament.

“I looked around and saw men with guns,” he said. He described the men as “ruffians” and thought they came to stop the debate.

“They came towards me, roughed me around and one stamped their boot on my face,” he said.

Joseph Toney, was speaking at the time, and Robinson said the debate had reached the point of them taunting the PNM opposition, which held only three seats in the Parliament, having lost the 1986 election.

Robinson said he heard shouts of “Allah u Akbar”, and believed the men were associated with Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen.

“I heard shouting, “Where Sello? Where Robbie?” and then shortly after there was total chaos, gunshots, screaming... all sorts of things,” he said.

Robinson said in the commotion, he heard persons scream in pain. Although his two police guards threw themselves on him when the insurgents stormed the Parliament Chamber, Robinson said he did not know what became of them later. “I heard one was killed, but I cannot give direct evidence of that,” he said.

At another juncture, Robinson said he heard his deputy Winston Dookeran say “Let us negotiate” and he authorised him to lead the negotiating team.

He said none of the coup-makers identified themselves to him as the leader of their group, but he was bound at the hands and feet and made to lie on the floor.

“They bound me with a sharp instrument and as I tried to move they cut into my flesh,” he said.

According to the former prime minister, he was convinced the insurgents had training overseas.

He was allowed to speak with the foreign media, and had been helped to a “rigged up contraption” by former minister in his Cabinet, John Humphrey.

“The whole place was in total confusion. It was chaos,” he said. Robinson said he knew other members of his Government were also being held captive, but could not say if they too were bound. He said he did not recall seeing then Opposition Leader Patrick Manning in the chamber, neither Basdeo Panday.

“I was in total confusion as to what was happening,” he said.

The gunfire in the Parliament Chamber continued for some time, a day or so, he said and when he heard the booming gunfire from outside the Red House, he knew the Regiment had been summoned.

“This went on for days,” he said.

During his testimony, which also spoke of the trouble he was receiving from members of his own Cabinet, Robinson said at some point Dookeran brought him a piece of paper with the terms of the agreement arrived at with the insurgents.

“I asked if he accepted, and he said, “Yes” and I said, “Go ahead,” he recounted, but made it clear that he had no input in the negotiations.

“I told myself I would have nothing to do with these men,” he said, adding that he also refused to accept water, tea or anything “to go into my system” because he was convinced that he would be poisoned.

Robinson later continued that Bilal Abdullah, one of the Muslimeen members in the Red House, came to him and asked if he would do what he was instructed to do.

“I said “Yes,” but I gathered the impression that they were Muslim fanatics. I intended to oppose them, and he left me and I thought he went to consult Abu Bakr,” he said.

Robinson said Abdullah returned and pushed a microphone to his face and demanded that he instruct the Regiment to “withdraw and lay down their guns because the Government had fallen.”

“I received the instructions with revulsion, and though it was impertinent, and I could not do anything of the sort. I said “These are murderers and torturers. Attack with full force,” he said, his voice booming over the public address system in the quiet courtroom.

Robinson said Abdullah “drew back in shock” at his resistance, and a young insurrectionist fired his gun.

“I don’t know if he intended to, or if he intended to shoot in my direction,” he said.

Robinson said, however, the bullet passed through his right knee, hit the right side (of the knee) and exited on the left side.

He said he was later told by his medical advisers that had the bullet diverted by half an inch, he would have died in short space of time.

“I was lying on the ground bleeding,” he recalled, and remember seeing Anglican Canon Knolly Clarke in the Parliament Chamber, and feeling saddened that Clarke appeared not to have recognised him, or acknowledged him as prime minister.

He also said at some point during the siege, he was handed an envelope by one of the insurgents, who whispered to him it was from his wife, Patricia.

“I was surprised. I thought they were inhumane, but I said maybe they are human after all.”

The note in the envelope contained only three words “I love You.”

“That strengthened me. It buoyed my spirits,” he said.

He also spoke of his interaction with one of his captors; a young man with a tall gun.

“He became defensive. He said to me you all caused this. Look at what you all have done to the people,” and I pointed to two women... two members of my Cabinet (Jennifer Johnson and Gloria Henry) who went through the same things and asked him, “Is that what you all do to women?” and he shut up. He never said a word after that,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he had no knowledge that any member of his Government had prior knowledge of the coup attempt, nor did the security forces bring it to the attention of either himself or his National Security Minister of any plot, despite there being an army post which was set up outside the Muslimeen’s Mucurapo Road compound, and subsequent reports of a convoy of women and children leaving the compound before the insurrection.

He also said he never asked for a report from the Commander of the Regiment as his main objective after the attempted coup, was to restore order to the country and prevent the Muslimeen from creating further damage.

Robinson, who was released on August 31, one day before the rest of the hostages were released, said he was assisted out of the Parliament building by one of the Muslimeen men.

“He took me out on his back. The attitude of the Muslimeen had completely changed. When they entered the Parliament, they were hurling abuses and they did not recognised me for who I was, or the position I held,” he said, adding that at the end of the siege they began to refer to him as “Mr Prime Minister.”

“I attributed that to the fact that I withstood them in such a manner that they began to have respect for me,” he said.

Robinson is expected to complete his testimony at a later occasion.

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