PRIME Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has said the Government has received legal advice that the legislation to give soldiers police powers is not in violation of the Constitution.
She was contributing to debate yesterday on The Defence (Amendment) Bill 2013 at Tower D, International Waterfront Centre, Port of Spain.
Persad-Bissessar said in her view the legislation is in keeping with the Constitution and is not violating it. She noted that Government sought legal advice and received the legal opinions of former Independent Senator and State Counsel Dana Seetahal SC and Guyanese Sir Fenton Ramsahoye QC.
Quoting from Seetahal's opinion, she read that "there are several examples of Parliament conferring police powers to public officers" and those amendments were not passed by special majority.
She said Seetahal also stated that Caribbean countries with similar legislation, the amendments to their Defence Act was passed with a simple majority.
"Ms Seetahal has argued very forcefully that the bill does not alter any provision of the Constitution and that there is no need for a special majority."
Persad-Bissessar reported that Seetahal stated that the amendment does not permit Defence Force members to exercise police powers at large and had also noted that the proposal does not create any "special class of police officers" because they are not given identical powers to the police but remain members of the Defence Force.
She noted that Ramsahoye in his opinion stated the three-fifths majority will be adequate.
The Prime Minister noted that Leader of Government Business Dr Roodal Moonilal, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, Minister of Legal Affairs Prakash Ramadhar, Justice Minister Christlyn Moore and herself met with president of the Law Association Seenath Jairam SC and vice-president of the Criminal Bar Association Sophia Chote SC on Thursday evening to discuss the association's concerns.
One of the suggestions from the association was a code of conduct and they proposed that the Chief of Defence Staff, within three months of the commencement of the Act, will establish a code of conduct for soldiers charged to assist police.
Persad-Bissessar stressed that the police powers to soldiers stop when they detain someone or seize something, and at that point they would hand the person or the item over to the police or at the nearest police station.
She noted that they cannot interrogate, lay charges or go to court to prosecute individuals, neither would they be able to carry out criminal investigations.
Persad-Bissessar said there are some who believe that this measure has no support but Daphne Bartlett, president of the San Fernando Business Association, said she had preferred a police state to a criminal state.
The PM commented that she prefers "neither of those" but a safe society.
She also noted that the Chamber of Commerce has described it as an "effective weapon" in crime fighting and Islamic organisation Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association had expressed support for the "gallant efforts".
In response to statements that the move will "demoralise" the police, Persad-Bissessar said the previous administration demoralised the police with the establishment of the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago, by not settling wage negotiations and not providing vehicles.