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Tread carefully with those Defence Force patrols

 National Security Minister Gary Griffith continues to insist that soldiers are acting within the law in conducting patrols, basing his defence on legal hair-splitting about the difference between a patrol and an operation and whether a police officer has to be present or just in communication. 

But now the Law Association has weighed in, noting that any act by soldiers beyond preventing an obvious crime, is illegal. Even more tellingly, retired major-general Ralph Brown in a letter to the editor has noted that no superior official has yet admitted to giving the orders under which the soldiers are carrying out so-called patrols. “If the soldiers are in fact patrolling, it would be interesting to know, who ordered the patrols? It follows that if the Commissioner did not request the patrols and the Chief of Defence Staff did not order them, then the patrols are in fact illegal under the law and, as the Commissioner has stated, they should be arrested,” wrote Major-General Brown.

In a typically intemperate response, Minister Griffith argued that, “General Brown has a problem understanding the difference between an operation and an independent patrol” and that Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams and Chief of Defence Staff Kenrick Maharaj had authorised the joint Police-Defence Force operations. Even if Mr Griffith is, technically, correct, Major-General Brown deserves at least a more courteous tone from a former junior officer.

Be that as it may, the complaints about soldiers’ operations hinge precisely on them stepping over legal boundaries. While some persons have come to the media with their complaints, none has gone to the police nor, for obvious reasons, the Defence Force. But now that Ag Commissioner Williams has made it clear that his officers will not brook law-breaking from soldiers, citizens should be more willing to make official reports.

Those in charge of the country’s security personnel, ranging from the President to the Prime Minister to 

Defence Force officers, should not wait for such reports, however. The presence of soldiers on apparently independent patrols is arousing great unease among ordinary citizens, and the claim by Mr Griffith and other apologists that the soldiers have reduced crime in the hotspot areas is specious. Even if that is so, the murder rate has not been reduced at all, so the real problem is not being dealt with. 

Moreover, it is passing strange that the country’s political leaders, particularly Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, do not appear to be taking this issue more seriously. History teaches that when military personnel are allowed to act beyond their legal powers, they become enamoured of power itself. That is a danger that politicians, in particular, should appreciate.

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