TRINIDAD and Tobago’s army cannot sit idly waiting for war when the country was “under siege” and being “terrorised by gun-toting bandits”, according to Attorney General Anand Ramlogan.
He made the statement while kicking off debate yesterday in the Senate on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Defence and Police Complaints) Bill, 2013, successor to the Defence Amendment Bill, at Tower D, International Waterfront Centre, Port of Spain.
Appealing to all senators to “let us join hands to support this bill”, Ramlogan reiterated that this “small country” was spending $1 billion per annum on the Defence Force, on the contingency that one day, we would go to war or have a prolonged state of emergency.
“If Venezuela or any other country wants to invade Trinidad and Tobago, the fact of the matter is our army, small and loyal, and committed, and powerful as it is, we’ll have to seek external help. We’ll be calling Uncle Sam or somebody else,” he said.
He continued: “It is simply not practical in today’s day and age to have an army on stand-by, standing idle, waiting for something to happen that may never happen.”
He said currently while on joint operations, soldiers have no power to detain or arrest individuals but in reality, they may stop them. He noted, however, that because soldiers know they do not have that power, they are reluctant to give evidence in court.
“So what happens is you find now that the police officers themselves are put in such an unenviable position. Their predicament is that they now have to come and say, (to the court) ‘Well, you know is we; is the police who hold the fellas,’” he said.
He noted that when defence counsel cross-examines these officers about these events, the prosecution’s case is “seriously compromised”. He said the amendment would take care of that situation.
He stressed the legislation was not about creating “soldier-police”, which has been “bandied about in the media”, but their powers would only be triggered when on joint operations with the police.
“So when you boil it down like bhaji, what it comes down, really, after all the fluff and froth...is that we are simply seeking to give legal protection and status to soldiers, coast guardsmen, and air guardsmen and women when they are accompanying police officers during joint police operations,” he said.
He said soldiers have been operating without legal protection for too long and it was a violation of the rule of law, and this Government was committed to the rule of law. Ramlogan also noted that the bill had received a great amount of criticism, “ill-informed comment” and “hype”, but when you “blow away the smoke and hype”, it is a simple bill to deal with a simple problem.
He said the involvement of soldiers in the fight against crime was nothing new. He referred to a newspaper report in August 2005 when then chief of defence staff Col Edmund Dillon noted that soldiers had been assisting police since the 1970s.
Dillon had pointed out that the national security environment had changed drastically and the Defence Force could not only focus on external enemies.
Ramlogan also noted that in 2006, the People’s National Movement (PNM) had commissioned Justice Ulric Cross to review the role of the Defence Force, and his recommendations included a radical transformation with adequate legislation due to the expanded role of the Defence Force.
The Attorney General said some people were talking about the legislation creating a “military state” but pointed out the PNM administration used soldiers with police for initiatives such as Operation Baghdad and Anaconda. He also questioned where were the voices of concern when soldiers locked down Richplain, Diego Martin, in June 2008.
He again shut down the statements that soldiers were “killing machines” and if given police powers, they “might go on a rampage and shoot up the place”.
He noted that soldiers, however, have been interacting with the community with programmes such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Military Led Academic Training Programme (MILAT) and the Military-led Youth Programme of Apprenticeship and Reorientation (MYPART).