Now that the curfew crder has been revoked many persons are wondering what the continuing State of Emergency means? The curfew was but one measure — although the most far reaching to the average citizen — of the State of Emergency. Since its revocation there have been very confusing remarks made about public gatherings, public meetings and the like.
For example, a few days ago, I heard some arm of the Police Service reminding persons that they need to have a permit to sell liquor and they need to keep the noise levels on the streets down. Well that is the regular law. What does it have to do with the State of Emergency? Further, it was reported that trade union officials who decried the State of Emergency were protesting about the denial of their rights to hold legitimate meetings in public places. There was also some mention about the armed forces breaking down doors and the like.
While I believe there is no evidence justifying the continuation of the State of Emergency (which I said in a previous column should result from a "serious, unexpected and potentially dangerous situation requiring immediate action" and cannot be ongoing), I feel that some of the fears expressed about the effects of the contributed SoE are not based on reality.
The regulations which continue to exist under the SoE provide that except with written permission of the Commissioner of Police no person shall hold or take part in a public meeting or march.
A public meeting is a meeting held out of doors. The regulations define a meeting itself as a gathering or assembly of persons called together for the purpose of the transaction or discussion of matters of public interest. Thus a public meeting is a gathering/assembly out of doors for the purpose of the transaction or discussion of matters of public interest. Therefore if persons gather at a bar or club or in a car park to drink or fete, their purpose there can hardly be said to be for discussion of matters of public interest. They are there primarily to lime or drink.
Under the Regulation 7 of if one wants to hold a public meeting or march permission of the Commissioner of Police, in writing, is required. The question that arises is whether this Regulation so impacts on the public that it can be said to be intended to curtail, for instance, the rights of trade unions and their members.
It seems to me that the regulation does is not significantly worse that the law that has existed prior to the State of Emergency. Under section 109 of the Summary Offences Act any person desirous of holding a public meeting must first give the Commissioner of Police notice in writing at least 48 hours before. If the Commissioner feels that the meeting may cause a breach of the peace or public disorder he may prohibit the meeting. He is required to state his reason when he does so and serve it on the person. This is the real difference.
In addition, under section 112 of the Summary Offences Act a public march is only permitted when the Commissioner issues a permit to do so. He may refuse to grant one in the interest of public safety or order.
What it boils down to when one compares the State of Emergency laws with the regular law is that while the SoE regulations are a bit more stringent both laws are restrictive of freedom of expression. Holding of public meetings and public marches are at the discretion of the Commissioner of Police, which discretion one hopes he exercises in a rational manner.
Under the established law a police officer may arrest someone whom he feels is about to commit a breach of the peace or has committed one. He may arrest someone who has committed an offence in his presence or whom he suspects on reasonable grounds to have committed a serious offence. He may search an arrested person for firearms as evidence of the commission of an offence.
Under the State of Emergency Regulations 10 and 18 a person on reasonable suspicion of committing certain offences under the Firearms Act or who it is feared is acting in a manner prejudicial to public safety or order may be arrested. In my view this adds nothing to the law that existed before the State of Emergency.
Under the Sedition Act it is an offence to communicate statements with seditious intention or possess or distribute seditious publications. A seditious intention includes one designed to raise discontent or disaffection among citizens. Under the SoE Regulations persons are prevented from having or disseminating documents that are likely to lead to breaches of the peace or cause discontent among persons. They are also prevented from making such statements.
It seems to me that there are very little differences between the Sedition Act, the permanent law and the State of Emergency law in this regard.
Where the Regulations differ in the first instance is that they permit the police to hold a person for up to seven days for enquiries — if the person is detained under the regulations. So that a person detained for a breach equivalent to sedition but detained under the regulations may be kept without charge for seven days. If he had been arrested under the Sedition Act he would usually have to be released or changed within 48/72 hours or the police would face a habeas corpus action.
Interestingly under the SoE it is said that the right to habeas corpus is suspended — although this has not been tested in any court.
The most important effect of the State of Emergency is however that members of the Defence Force may continue to have the powers of police officers — but only for the purposes of enforcing the State of Emergency Regulations and no other law.
• Dana S Seetahal is a former