Trinidad and Tobago trembled and the region reeled from the assassination early yesterday of Dana Seetahal, well-respected senior counsel (SC), an outspoken independent senator during her time in Parliament, and well-read Express columnist.
Jurists all up the Caribbean were texting Trinidadians to find out if it was true and the Trinidad and Tobago legal community staggered in disbelief.
Why did this happen? was the question everyone was asking.
It was the first assassination of a senior member of the criminal justice system, a major blow which threatens to reverberate throughout the system and strike it at its very heart.
Seetahal, 58, a fearless prosecutor who had prosecuted attempted-coup leader Abu Bakr in the past and successfully won the lawsuit which enabled the State to sell the former insurgent’s property, was currently prosecutor in another high-profile case—the murder trial of Vindra Naipaul-Coolman.
The mood of the country yesterday was one of overwhelming fear, worry and insecurity.
People were talking about it everywhere—in the churches, in the marketplace, on the streets.
Entertainer Machel Montano, whom Seetahal had defended recently in an assault case, sat on the pavement, holding his head and crying at the murder scene.
So shaken was the country that some people went so far as to say the last time the society had experienced this “what-the-hell-is-going-on-here?” kind of shock was when they saw Yasin Abu Bakr on their television sets on July 27, 1990.
No doubt about it—Trinidad and Tobago was disoriented, troubled and traumatised by the wanton act which occurred at Hamilton Holder Street at approximately 12.05 yesterday morning.
The obviously carefully-planned hit was executed, from all appearances, with precision, using military assault rifles.
Seetahal did not stand a chance as she drove from her regular “stress-reliever”—Ma Pau casino in Woodbrook—to her home at One Woodbrook Place, minding her own business.
No one could have survived the onslaught that she faced. The weapons of war employed by the assassins were designed to do maximum damage in a military setting, capable of penetrating the outer frame of her vehicle as well as a bullet-proof vest, not that she wore one.
Those who knew her personally and those who knew her by her “fame” as a lawyer, speaker, author and columnist, had the same thoughts, the same scenes being played out in their heads over and over yesterday.
They kept imagining how it all went down. How, in The Godfather style, her car was blocked from the front and behind. How scared and alone she must have felt as her life flashed before her in a terrifying instant before her body was riddled with bullets; 15 shots—five pierced her head, some of the others hit her upper torso.
What a horrible moment! What a tremendous loss!
Dana Seetahal touched a wide constituency of people—lawyers and judicial officers, politicians and parliamentarians, journalists and a broad cross-section of friends and, most importantly, a family of siblings, nieces and nephews.
Anyone who has passed through any of the law schools in the Caribbean in the last ten years learned criminal practice and procedure at the criminal bar from Dana Seetahal.
Her book, Commonwealth Caribbean Criminal Practice and Procedure, is a must-read, a virtual gospel for law students in the Commonwealth Caribbean. The best-seller is into its third edition.
As news of the murder trickled in from around 1 a.m., and then around 2 a.m. flooding the online versions of the daily newspapers and the social media, the country lost its capacity to sleep.
An emotional Pamela Elder, president of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “I just put my pillow over my head and screamed; screamed for the loss of Dana and for our country.
“We have lost a formidable advocate, who worked hard and tirelessly for the criminal justice system. We worked on opposite sides but there was no bitterness, because of our love for the system. Sometimes we might have disagreed... but eventually we worked it out because we understood that the ultimate goal was the good of the criminal justice system.”
Wayne Sturge was equally shaken, alternating between sorrow and anger.
“We used to call her ‘Sweetahal’. She was the life of the coffee shop where the lawyers hung out during court time.”
Seetahal’s incisive analysis was always sought by those in the media fraternity. She endeared herself to us media practitioners by her willingness to clarify complex legal issues and to offer her robust insight.
Fellow Express columnist and attorney Gillian Lucky said: “She always shared knowledge. She never kept it to herself.”
“Dana loved hanging out, liming, laughing and doing things that normal, down-to-earth persons would do. And she valued a good conversation,” another close friend stated.
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar summed it up this way: “There is an abyss of loss and sadness for this brutal removal of a sister, friend, legal luminary and fearless, independent thinker on national issues.”
Seetahal was also interested in children’s issues and rights.
She had only recently taken pro bono the case of two young girls who were sent to the adult women’s prison because the State could not find accommodation for them in any other facility.
So the key question remains: did the death of this beloved attorney, Dana Seetahal, relate in any way to her job that she was so passionate about?
The country has grown accustomed to witnesses being murdered or intimidated.
But as Trinidad and Tobago processed the news of Seetahal’s death and its possible implications, the population wondered whether our nation had entered a new and more dangerous realm and whether new floodgates had been opened.
And if this is indeed so, what does it mean for those engaged in upholding the criminal justice system?
Trinidad and Tobago has taken the assassination of Dana Seetahal very hard indeed.