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I come not to praise Karl

By Raffique Shah

 Friends, Trinis, countrymen, I come not to praise Karl, nor indeed, to bury him. I come instead to tell some truths about Mr Hudson-Phillips, some complimentary, others unsavory, but which, wherever he may be, he would applaud me for having the courage to enunciate, honourable man that he was. 

Karl was the 37 years-young Attorney General of the country in 1970, the youngest minister in Dr Eric Williams’ Cabinet. He was colonial to the core, with mannerisms characteristic of the Court of St James’s. In contrast, at age 24, I was representative of a generation that abhorred colonialism and revolted against the neocolonial power structure that stymied our country, young men and women who were prepared to put our lives on the line in a bid to change the status quo. 

Although he was a mere ten years or so older than us, he represented the old order. We were destined to collide. When we did, the foundations of the country shook. He was the architect of a state of emergency that started with the arbitrary arrests of scores of Black Power activists and triggered a mutiny in the army.

In its turbulent wake, 80-odd soldiers were charged with treason and mutiny, with Karl being the prosecutor-general, although he appeared in court only briefly. He had hired a formidable legal team led by Bruce Procope and Teddy Guerra, and, since we had all but admitted to having mutinied, it was seen as “case closed”.

That was not to be. Rex Lassalle and I, directing a team of radical young lawyers from our prison cells, entered an unprecedented plea of “condonation” that caught the prosecution flat-footed. When Desmond Allum and Allan Alexander dropped this legal bombshell, the court almost collapsed in confusion.

When the dust settled, we won a case that appeared to be unwinnable, with even the Privy Council agreeing with our arguments. Two junior officers had run rings around the mighty Hudson-Phillips. 

The legal fraternity that today lionises Karl as an advocate-supreme, also forgets (or does not know) that humble solicitor Lennox Pierre found a flaw in the initial declaration of the emergency in 1970, which he, Alexander and others took to court on behalf of George Weekes and others. The judge ruled in their favour and the original emergency was nullified. Karl declared another emergency in order to hold the political detainees.

The notorious Public Order Bill, which some of his worshippers are today defending, sought to abrogate human and civil rights, curb freedom of speech and, the right to protest. It was aimed at opponents of the PNM, not criminals. Public outrage was such that even conservative citizens came out against it. Venerable QC Algernon “Pope” Wharton appeared on a protest platform for the only time in his life, tearing up a copy of the Bill. Government was forced to withdraw it, although Karl would later introduce elements of it piecemeal, hence the requirements to stage public meetings or hold protest demonstrations.

In most civilised countries, these rights are unfettered. Karl, with full backing from Dr Williams, had these draconian measures institutionalised in this country’s statute books. This was the background to Chalkdust’s immortal calypso, “Ah Fraid Karl”.

Karl would find himself estranged from Dr Williams by early 1973. In his Machiavellian style, Eric would neither speak with Karl nor respond to his letters. Karl had the courage to resign as AG, something that lesser PNMites would not dare do. Later that year, when a frustrated Eric declared his intention to resign as party leader, hence Prime Minister, Karl announced his candidacy for leadership.

On the day of the convention, at the behest of his toadies, Eric returned to wild acclamation at the party’s convention that seemed set to elect Karl. Battle lines were drawn, 

In the run-up to the 1976 general election, Karl refused to sign an undated letter of resignation that Eric demanded of all PNM candidates.

He would later join the Land Tenants and Rate Payers Association and I would witness the unimaginable spectacle of Karl picketing Parliament. It was the first time we shook hands and talked. Later, he formed the ONR, the party that ended PNM ownership of the East-West Corridor and the middle class Afro-Trinidadian vote, even though it failed to win “a damn seat” in 1981. However, the alliance with an earlier and maybe more important PNM defector, Ray Robinson, and Basdeo Panday’s ULF, eventually crushed the PNM in 1986.

Karl could take credit for that, and for eschewing political office when he could have claimed it. He never explained why he stayed out of the NAR Cabinet, but when the new political behemoth imploded, his acolytes stayed with Robinson.

In his political after-life, he would emerge as a voice of reason, speaking out on contentious political issues or when persons holding high offices appeared to breach principles.

In spite of our vast differences, I learned to respect him. But I would never have trusted Karl with political power. I am convinced he would have abused it in the name of law and order, justice be damned.

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