High treason walks free
No review of our 51 years of Independence could or should fail to highlight the direct violent assault on our democracy in July 1990 by the fundamentalist Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, led by Yasin Abu Bakr (nee Lennox Phillip, who, ironically, was once a Mounted Branch policeman).
A significant difference between the Black Power upheaval of 1970 and the 1990 attempted coup was that while the former had widespread popular appeal, the latter was the work of 114 men who had very little or almost no public support.
A violent spillover from the repressed Black Power uprising did not in fact develop until around 1973 with the emergence of something called the National Union of Freedom Fighters (NUFF), which comprised a small number of young men and at least one young woman, Beverly Jones, who took to the hills in an apparent attempt at “guerrilla warfare”.
NUFF included young men like Guy Harewood, Kirklon Paul, Brian Jeffers, John Beddeau, Michael Lewis and Andy Thomas, most of whom were gunned down by an aggressive Police Flying Squad led by soon-to-be Police Commissioner Randolph Burroughs. Andy Thomas was more fortunate. He was arrested, charged with the killing of a policeman, tried, found guilty and sentenced to hang. He actually spent just over a dozen years on Death Row before receiving a presidential pardon.
That experience could hardly be said to have had a deterrent effect on Thomas because under the newly assumed Muslim name, Abdullah Omawale, he turned up, revolver in hand, among the insurgents led by Abu Bakr who stormed and took over Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) on the late afternoon of Friday, July 27, 1990. (By 1999 Thomas succumbed to a rare form of cancer of the jaw).
That very afternoon another group of Muslimeen insurgents had stormed a session of the House of Representatives at the Red House, taking then Prime Minister ANR Robinson and other Members of Parliament hostage. The sentry on guard at nearby Police Headquarters on St Vincent Street was shot dead and a car driven into the compound, wired with explosives which were set off, engulfing the entire building in flames.
As the army began gearing up to respond to this surprise onslaught, in the Red House Prime Minister Robinson was handed a telephone and, at gunpoint, ordered to call on the army to back off. Instead Robinson shouted into the phone: “Murderers! Torturers! Attack with full force!” For this singular act of extraordinary courage, he was shot in the leg by a gunman.
MP Leo des Vignes, shot during the storming of the Red House, bled to death before he could get medical help. In all some two dozen people lost their lives during this insurrection,.
A standoff between the bristling army and the insurgents at both TTT and the Red House then ensued, involving several gun battles, over the next six days.
None of this was foreseeable when in late 1970 I was offered a job as a press secretary to Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams. The initial offer was made by the late William Demas, former economic adviser to Dr Williams and then secretary-general of the Guyana-based Caricom secretariat, on one of his periodic visits home.
My instant response was, no. I was not a fan of Dr Williams. In fact, I regarded him as an arrogant and authoritarian Prime Minister, added to which, as I told Mr Demas, he had two of my personal friends, the late Adrian Espinet and Syl Lowhar, both of the Tapia House movement, then detained on offshore Nelson Island along with other key leaders of the Black Power movement.
Mr Demas waved aside this concern and strongly suggested I seriously consider the job offer.
I didn’t. In fact, I dismissed it completely as soon as I left my meeting with him. But a few days later I got another call at the “Guardian”, this time from Dr Williams himself, asking me to come and see him at his Whitehall office at two that afternoon. I didn’t think I had much choice. So off I went, steeling myself to resist the job offer to his face.
But for the hour or so of that first meeting with Dr Williams there was no mention of any job offer. Dr Williams simply talked at length about a wide range of issues, referring to the dangers posed by the Black Power upheaval, which he had shut down on April 21, 1970 with a state of emergency after 55 days of daily and growing street protests, and pointing to the violent Haitian Revolution he told me: “You don’t know what you were playing with.”
I left that meeting puzzled. And my puzzlement would only deepen when over the next few weeks Dr Williams would twice summon me to meet with him again at his Whitehall office to ramble on endlessly about the difficulties he faced in trying to govern what he described as “an unruly society”. On that third, and final, occasion there was another person present: the veteran newspaperman George John, now deceased, whom I had first encountered as editor of the short-lived Trinidad Daily Mirror and who, by now, had accepted the job that I had turned down.
By this time I had quit the Guardian to join the Trinidad Express as its political reporter, eventually rising to the post of editor.
But by 1990, now functioning as a freelance journalist, I had taken on the job as a parliamentary reporter for TTT, working closely with then TTT news director Jones P Madeira.
Madeira, myself and the other TTT staff being held hostage by the Muslimeen hugged the floor inside that TV station when on two separate occasions the army and the insurgents exchanged gunfire, with the army eventually employing mortar fire, which struck a wooden annexe at the back of TTT and burnt it to the ground.
Finally convinced they were outnumbered and outgunned, the insurgents -having previously released Prime Minister Robinson- surrendered on August 1, 1990 (Emancipation Day, observed as a public holiday), bringing an end to this nightmare scenario. But all the insurgents were freed when the local courts upheld an amnesty they had been granted by the Government under the gun.
When the Government appealed to the Privy Council in London, the amnesty was declared invalid — because the insurgents had kept making new demands after agreeing to the amnesty. Still. The Privy Council also ruled that four years having elapsed since the insurrection, it would not be in keeping with “due process” to have the perpetrators all re-arrested and tried for their crimes.
So, to this day they remain free. And unrepentant. And the good Lord or Allah alone knows what else might transpire if the right opportune moment presents itself.
Mark my word!