Public Trust in Justice Takes Another Knock With Arrest of Former Trinidad & Tobago Attorney General

The Hall of Justice in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo by Debangsu, CC BY-NC 2.0.

It's not unusual for politicians to steal the spotlight from one another, but social media users in Trinidad and Tobago probably didn't expect it to happen quite so fast.

August 28, 2017: Tobago House of Assembly Minority Leader Watson Duke completes his protest swim-turned-boat-ride from Scarborough to Toco. August 29: Former attorney general Anand Ramlogan is arrested on charges of perverting the course of justice and misbehaviour in public office.

But the charges should not have come as a surprise. After a story that broke in January 2015, the police began investigating Ramlogan based on allegations made by David West, director of the Police Complaints Authority (PCA).

In return for the then government's support of West as head of the PCA, Ramlogan was said to have asked him to withdraw as a witness in a defamation suit Ramlogan had brought against Dr Keith Rowley, who was leader of the opposition at the time.

The lawsuit in question involved the failed extradition of Steve Ferguson and Ishwar Galbaransingh, businessmen who were financiers of the United National Congress (UNC) political party to which Ramlogan belongs (and which led the then People's Partnership coalition government).

Ferguson and Galbaransingh were wanted for extradition by the United States on corruption charges stemming from the construction of the country's new airport, and attempted to evade these charges through a short-lived clause that was insidiously made into law while the country was in the midst of its 50th independence celebrations.

Known thenceforth as Section 34, the clause prevented the prosecution of accused whose trial has been delayed for up to 10 years after the alleged offence was committed (except in instances of “blood crimes”).

Rowley, who is now the country's prime minister, maintained all along that the insertion of Section 34 into the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act was “a conspiracy by the government.” The amendment was repealed by the country's parliament on September 12, 2012.

Once West's allegations were made public, Ramlogan (along with then Minister of National Security Gary Griffith) were fired over the debacle.

Ramlogan's arrest becomes the talk of Twitter

Five years later, the ripple effects of the Section 34 controversy are still being felt. Social media was abuzz with updates about Ramlogan's arrest.

One of Ramlogan's attorneys soon suggested that the questioning of her client was becoming “oppressive”:

To which political commentator Rhoda Bharath retorted, referring to the country's 2011 state of emergency:

Charges were laid soon enough, however. Interestingly, the last item that Ramlogan has up on his Twitter account (dating back to 2015) is a press release stating that a judicial investigation cleared him of any conspiracy allegations made by the People's National Movement (PNM) party, which Dr. Rowley heads:

There was much online discussion about the fact that several colleagues who tried to visit Ramlogan while he was in police custody were denied access:

Bharath again clapped back:

One of Ramlogan's colleagues, Dr. Roodal Moonilal, suggested that the timing of Ramlogan's arrest was curious, what with the current administration facing accusations of improper procurement practices and grappling with escalating crime.

Ramlogan was subsequently released on TT $750,000 (just over US $111,000) bail and will appear in the Port of Spain Magistrates’ Court on September 1, 2017 to answer the charges. Ramlogan's attorney, senior counsel Pamela Elder, described her client as “a person of unblemished character […] who has served his country with distinction” and said she “patiently and eagerly” awaits the day when West is made to defend his allegations in court.

‘The public’s confidence in…justice has been severely undermined’

Meanwhile, the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago (LATT), which has been embroiled in a controversy following a mostly symbolic no confidence vote in the country's chief justice, has admonished politicians for attempting to turn the arrest of the former attorney general into political fodder. LATT's statement “remind[ed] the public of the importance of the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty”.

A couple of legal practitioners wasted no time in weighing in. Attorney Justin Phelps found the association's stance ironic:

The Law Association can knowingly pass an ineffective (and meaningless) no confidence in a Chief Justice but warns against criticism of police because it could reduce confidence in the administration of justice. […] The truth is that the attack on the [Chief Justice] was the groundwork being laid to question the administration of justice in exactly the manner it is being questioned now. Two months ago LATT convened to do exactly what it is condemning today.

Dr. Emir Crowne, an attorney and senior lecturer at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, also shared his perspective on the site Wired868. Regarding LATT's concern about “undermin[ing] public confidence in the administration of justice”, he said:

Too late. The public’s confidence in the administration of justice has been severely undermined in recent times, the most recent of which is the elaborate, Spielberg-esque detention of Mr Ramlogan […]

Furthermore, let’s not forget the Law Association’s own role in undermining the administration of justice, when select members passed a—meaningless—“no confidence” motion against the Honourable Chief Justice.

The Law Association’s current attempt to stifle legitimate dialogue about matters of public interest—like excessive detentions and the abuse of police powers—is also an affront to the independence of the bar and the rule of law. […]

Worse still, by telling others to not politicise an issue, the Law Association is itself being inherently political. […] In condemning politicisation, the Law Association has committed the very sin it chastised.

In today's hearing, the former AG was not asked to plead. His case has been adjourned to January 11, 2018.

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