Right in step with the rest of the world, Trinidad and Tobago became a more dangerous place last week with our commitment to democratic process being tested once again. And, once again, despite our overwhelming anxiety to crush the hand of criminality choking us by the throat, we managed to still our fear and keep our heads long enough to prove ourselves worthy, even if in some quarters, we remain wanting.
Just in time—and to his credit—Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams found the backbone to assert his authority and stand up against the Defence Force’s illegal encroachment on police work. His intervention on Thursday was a game-changer in a revealing chain of events involving the military tag team of former Defence Force captain and Minister of National Security, Gary Griffith, and Chief of Defence Staff, Major General Kenrick Maharaj.
Cheered on by Griffith and bolstered by Maharaj’s silence, a group of soldiers, described in some Defence Force quarters as “the Goon Squad”, was emboldened enough to break the law in full view of news cameras which showed gun-toting soldiers fully, and illegally, masked on military exercises in Couva and Laventille. Next came daily media reports of residents with bloodied faces and battered bodies, allegedly the result of beatings by soldiers, coupled with reports of interrogations, threats, and illegal home searches.
Challenged by the media, Minister Griffith and Defence Force officials repeatedly threw the red herring of the soldiers’ right to conduct routine patrols—as if the public does not know the difference between routine patrols to provide citizens with the security of armed presence, and soldiers illegally assuming police powers.
Neither the allegations nor the photographic evidence seemed to trouble Minister Griffith, Major General Maharaj, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar as PM and head of the National Security Council or President Carmona, Commander-in-chief of the Defence Force and a former judge.
Outside the Government, the silence was as deafening.
Apart from the timely alert on martial law issued last Sunday by fellow columnist Martin Daly SC, the legal fraternity, most notably the Law Association, remained silent as report after report surfaced about soldiers acting outside the law.
The media, too, seemed equally unfocused, repeatedly stumbling against Minister Griffith’s wild assertion that “detractors and complainers” were probably involved in illegal activity or associated with criminals.
Apart from a statement of outrage issued by Wesley Gibbings of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers (ACM), the incident involving soldiers at the Trinidad Guardian on Monday elicited no comment whatsoever from either the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago or the T&T Publishers and Broadcasters Association. No paragon of press freedom itself, the Guardian has a case that should warrant serious response from an alert media community.
The press freedom issues arising from soldiers staking out a media house during a hunt for an interviewee inside, coupled with pressure on editors from Defence Force top brass, demand an unequivocal position on press freedom from the entire media. What if the Guardian editors had allowed themselves to be cowed into handing over the interviewee? Would the soldiers have illegally arrested and, therefore, kidnapped a citizen? And what would be the police response given the repeated position that Skeete is not a person of interest to the police in any matter, including the murder of Lance Corporal Kayode Thomas?
While Defence Force officials have denied having anything to do with the bomb hoax phoned in to the Guardian on Monday, triggering an evacuation while Skeete was thought to be inside, the co-incidence is too staggering to ignore.
By Thursday, however, the intervention by Acting CoP Williams was effective enough to send the National Security Minister and his military allies into retreat. We should not, however, expect this to mark the end of the Government’s attempt to circumvent Parliament’s refusal to grant police powers of arrest to soldiers.
It is clear that the Defence Force is Griffith’s preferred and, possibly, only solution to the country’s crime problem. Perhaps his intemperate exuberance for sending in the troops is the combination of limited military experience and general immaturity in public affairs. The far more seasoned military men who headed the Ministry of National Security—the late Brigadier General Joseph Theodore and retired Brigadier John Sandy—exhibited none of the noisy warmongering that has become the trademark of Griffith’s inability to deal with crime within the constitutional framework of law and order.
Militarising the country cannot be the solution to crime in any democratic country. Ultimately, the only solution lies in transforming the Police Service from the colonial adjunct to authoritarian power that it has always been, into an effective, modern institution well-equipped to protect and serve.
This is no overnight task, nor is it one that partisan politics will deliver. We need Government and Opposition to get together on this one and negotiate a mutually acceptable framework for digging the Police Service out of the quagmire in which it is stuck. No government can tackle this task on its own, not even with the advantage of special majorities. In this process, it is difficult to see any role for a Gary Griffith.