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Trinidad and Tobago: Debating a State of Emergency

Categories: Caribbean, Trinidad & Tobago, Breaking News, Governance, Human Rights, Law, Media & Journalism, Politics

The unexpected declaration of a national state of emergency to deal with a high rate of crime has taken citizens of Trinidad and Tobago by surprise. At a press conference on the evening of Sunday 21 August, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced [1] that “after much deliberation it has been agreed that Government will impose a limited state of emergency in hot spots across the country.” This legal step, which affects a broad range of civil rights, has triggered widespread debate about the roots of violent crime in Trinidad and Tobago and the implications of the government's latest strategy.

The state of emergency requires a presidential proclamation under conditions specified in the Trinidad and Tobago constitution, as noted [2] by KnowTNT.com. It gives the authorities special temporary legal powers to arrest and search citizens without a warrant. It also imposes a curfew on the capital city, Port of Spain, and its immediate suburbs, as well as the major urban centres of San Fernando, Arima and Chaguanas, restricting residents to their homes between 9 pm and 5 am. Other Emergency Powers Regulations [3] [PDF] affect habeas corpus [4] and citizens’ rights to freedom of movement, assembly, association, speech, and privacy.

Over the past decade, the murder rate in Trinidad and Tobago has increased dramatically, fuelled by the rise of criminal gangs, the illegal drug trade, and the widespread availability of illegal guns. Successive crime-prevention plans, heavy investment in surveillance technology, and even the hiring of a Canadian police commissioner have had little effect. In recent days, the country was horrified by a series of murders — 11 in a four-day period [5]. Announcing the state of emergency, Persad-Bissessar said: “The current crime spree dictates that more must be done and stronger action must be deployed now…it must be a response that will hold the current spike in gang activity and crime in general in the shortest possible time.”

Some Trinidadians online welcomed the government's strategy. “Regular readers of this blog will know this is something I called for on many occasions and am strongly in support of,” said [6] blogger Jumbie's Watch. “Many have been calling on the government for firm and decisive action and like it or not, this is it,” noted [7] Plain Talk. On Twitter, @taramjohn [8] declared her “support of the #stateofemergency #lockdown:

Prefer be @ home by 9pm than feel unsafe in d country I live in. #patience

Others questioned the efficacy of a state of emergency, the implications for civil rights, and the possibility of abuse of emergency by the authorities. Twitter user @AsaMarie91 [9] wryly noted:

i think the idea of calling a #stateofemergency in #trinidad is great!……If we were fighting vampires >.<

@tsaboca [10] asked:

What happens if yuh enemies have police friends?

And @fakekamla [11] — a Twitter account satirically impersonating the prime minister — naturally weighed in:

Dengue still killing me. Slept all day and only just got up. Dreamt I declared a state of emergency and confused the shit out of everybody.

The economic effects of the state of emergency, and in particular the curfew, also came under scrutiny. “If this country was a corporation, our share price would be heading south just about now,” remarked [12] @30daysnFebruary [13] via Twitter. “Poor tourism industry,” said [14] @Track7Music [15]. “It was already in shambles and making like what.. $10 a year…. Now its sure to be jus extinct.”

In the hours after the state of emergency was announced, many Trinidadians were bewildered by an absence of reliable official information. The measures were scheduled to take effect at midnight on 22 August, but the Emergency Powers Regulations were not released until several hours later. An inaccurate list of areas under curfew was circulated online and via mobile networks.

As is usually the case in Trinidad and Tobago's social media sphere, the liveliest debate unfolded in the semi-privacy of Facebook, which was also a channel for spreading news and rumours. Facebook user Brendon J. O'Brien [16] posted a note that attracted several dozen responses (quoted with explicit permission from the writer):

I, for one, am left wanting a much more serious explanation for such serious (or at least serious-sounding) measures. Mrs. Persad-Bissessar says that the current rate of crime proves that “government must respond to in the most definitive manner possible.” This would be completely understandable if it were … capable of being fully understood. While crime is a real issue for Trinbagonians, I believe we can all agree that much more still stood to be done within calm reason. This, however, is simply a mad rush to the extreme…. many have already begun to warn friends and family of possible excessive force, and to say that they fear the policeman more than the thief. This will shape how we respond to an elevated state of protective force, and should've been taken into consideration when this plan was coming together…. The end result in the next few days could only be confusion.

On Twitter, Trinidadians quickly adopted the hashtags #stateofemergency and #stateofemergencytt. The curfew regulations — the aspect of the state of the emergency most likely to affect regular citizens — came in for particular attention. Comedian @Buhwamoder [17] wrote:

For everyone who is doubting that this curfue will actually help just remember that you can't get murdered in the daylight.

@AdVerse4490 [18] was more defiant:

Eh…Kamla…I LETTING YUH KNOW, if I feel to leave MY house, I GO LEAVE MY HOUSE. Yuh unders?

@oilandmusic76 [19] pointed out that the regulations were aimed at specific communities considered to be gang “hotspots”:

Now the scary part is that this is a ‘limited state of emergency” in only certain areas. Read:poor/black.

@ _Kavira_ [20] expressed a widely held view:

Doesn't the designation of hotspots mean that crime could potentially migrate to the other areas?

@AltonBertie [21] added:

but i still hvnt heard any viable solutions to crime. how r they gna prevent crime AFTER the #stateOfEmergency

And writer B.C. Pires, who tweets from @ToBCorNotToBC [22], reacted to a statement by the acting commissioner of police that the media are not considered an “essential service” for the purpose of issuing curfew passes:

Why would anyone think journalists are essential in a state of emergency? You don't want people to find out what you're doing, do you?

If you allowed journalists to cover your police beatings, intimidatory arrests etc, what would be the point of a state of emergency?

One commenter at Trinidad and Tobago News Blog suggested [23] the state of emergency may also have something to do with current negotiations between the government and the main public service union, which have included threats of a general strike:

All to avoid civil unrest due to industrial action, not human rights…. What is really happening? Let us not be emotional but objective. This move will stop the labour movement in their tracks first and foremost before it addresses any criminal elements!

Meanwhile, developments in Trinidad and Tobago attracted attention elsewhere in the Caribbean region, where other nations have struggled to control levels of crime and violence. Writing from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, blogger Abeni questioned [24] the wisdom of the Persad-Bissessar government's actions:

While I agree that escalating violence in the region is cause for great concern this move strikes me as being panicky, ill thought out and silly. It may be that there will be some short term gain but when this limited emergency is lifted I am sure it will be business as usual. So rather than place limited state of emergencies and interfere with people's basic rights Caribbean leaders better sit down and identify what is driving this upsurge of violence in their respective islands.