By Andre Bagoo
September 12, 2012 – newsday.co.tt
THE PARLIAMENT sits today to urgently pass legislation to repeal a section of a new law, after the Government’s decision to proclaim the law opened the door to a wave of applications to the Supreme Court which could see businessmen Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson, as well as several others accused in the Piarco corruption inquiries, walk free without trial.
The Ministry of Communications yesterday morning hastily issued a one-line press release to announce that it will convene the House of Representatives at 1.30 pm for the purpose of repealing Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings Act) 2011, which was proclaimed by President George Maxwell Richards on August 28, mere days ahead of the State’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Independence. Newsday also understands that a sitting of the Senate has also been called for tomorrow.
The Act was passed to abolish preliminary inquiries and replace it with a paper review by a Master of the High Court who would determine if a matter goes to trial. Section 34 of the Act, which was passed last November, allows accused persons to apply to a judge to have cases discharged where the offences involved are alleged to have taken place more than ten years ago. The section was one of six sections of the legislation which came into effect on August 31, under the terms of the President’s proclamation.
Newsday yesterday exclusively reported that on Monday lawyers for Galbaransingh and Ferguson lodged an application under the controversial new section at the High Court seeking a declaration of a not guilty verdict. However, the High Court – which is on vacation and which has not yet had time to put rules in place to handle the new procedure – was yesterday besieged by a wave of similar applications from other persons charged in relation to the Piarco International Airport project.
The question of whether the provision would block any proceedings in the Clico and Udecott cases also arose after lawyers noted the time limit starts from the date of the alleged offence. Both companies – which are subject to ongoing police investigations – have controversial histories going back more than ten years.
Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley yesterday noted the Government had given assurances in Parliament last year that it would not proclaim the legislation before new rules meant to govern the legislation are tabled in Parliament. He described the early proclamation of the new law as “scandalous” and “a betrayal” and called for the immediate resignation of Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and Minister of Justice Herbert Volney, who had promised the law would not be proclaimed before the new rules.
“Now that these developments have played themselves out in such a disgraceful manner, the PNM calls for the immediate resignation of the Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and the Minister of Justice Herbert Volney,” Rowley said at a press conference at the Opposition offices on Charles Street, Port-of-Spain.
He called for action, “Given the scandalous, and I daresay, even criminal conduct of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in using the Cabinet and the Parliament to facilitate the escape of alleged criminal wrongdoing on the part of favoured citizens.”
“The burning question to be answered is why the surreptitious undue haste to proclaim this legislation? The answer, we fear, is consistent with the perception that the Government is a government for its people and not the people.”
Rowley noted that in Parliament on November 18, Volney, who piloted an amendment to the original bill which made the date of limitation run from the date of the alleged offence, had promised that the law would not be proclaimed until after new criminal rules are drafted and presented in Parliament, possibly in a second bill. According to the unrevised Hansard for that debate, Volney said, “While this measure can work without rules because it establishes a framework, I can assure members opposite that nothing is going to be proclaimed before all the necessary measures required to make it succeed happens.”
“It was with some degree of shock, consternation and betrayal that the Opposition has learnt that sections of the Act have been proclaimed,” Rowley said.
The United States government also placed pressure on the Government to act, issuing a press release expressing concern and saying it would be “highly disappointing if, after years of investigation, the case was not brought to trial.” Galbaransingh and Ferguson were in 2005 indicted in a Miami Federal Court, on numerous fraud and money laundering charges stemming from alleged bid rigging between 1996 and 2005 on contracts for the Piarco International Airport.
Though Chief Justice Ivor Archie refused to be drawn into the matter yesterday, Newsday understands the Judiciary was caught unprepared for the proclamation.
The body designated to draft new rules to regulate the implementation of the new legislation, the Rules Committee, is yet to implement new rules to handle criminal cases under the legislation. Further, additional Masters have not yet been appointed to handle the envisioned workload created by the new law.
“Despite the absence of the promised infrastructure, the government has proceeded to make the Act law so that person may now claim the benefit of the Act,” Rowley said. “Without the proclamation, the accused in the Piarco matters would have to submit to a preliminary inquiry which could result in their trial before judge and jury.”
Rowley continued, “It is a cause for alarm to learn that the legislation was proclaimed and put into force, during the 50 th anniversary Independence celebrations, without prior warning, in the circumstance where the preliminary inquiry into the airport charges is about to resume, thereby appearing to facilitate the making of an application to a judge by accused in the Piarco Airport scandal for an order to declare themselves not guilty.”
“The act of proclaiming this legislation, at this time, in breach of the Government assurances to the Parliament, will be perceived as evidence of the power and influence of corrupt individuals over this Government and further undermine respect for rule of law.
Ramlogan, in turn, yesterday pointed out that the legislation had been passed with Opposition support. Rowley said the Opposition only supported the bill last year because of a pledge made by Volney in Parliament that the bill would not be proclaimed before new rules were presented in Parliament. Volney yesterday declined to respond to queries from Newsday, saying, simply “Ask the AG.”
Ahead of tomorrow’s sitting of the Senate, Newsday understands that Independent Senators – who also supported the law under the premise that it would not be proclaimed under a second act – are poised to make demands for the legislation to be retroactive. Independent Senators reported feeling misled by Volney’s assurance that the Act would not be proclaimed until new rules were tabled in Parliament.
Legal sources questioned whether the persons who filed applications on Monday would still have grounds for constitutional relief, even if the section is repealed. They argue the legislation would have to have retroactive effect to be effective.
Amid the mounting pressure, the Office of the Prime Minister issued a press release at 5.48 pm, stating that a statement would be made at the Diplomatic Centre at 7 pm after a “special” meeting of Cabinet and inviting media houses to the Diplomatic Centre for “full coverage”, raising expectation that the Prime Minister would address the situation.
However, the Prime Minister did not attend the briefing, instead sending out Ramlogan to deliver a statement, which he did on his own in the absence of any Cabinet colleagues at the head-table. Volney was not present.
Ramlogan said the Prime Minister had, at 7 am, decided to have Section 34 repealed. It was unclear what the purpose of the “special” Cabinet meeting was, but Ramlogan said the meeting was called to “ratify” the Prime Minister’s decision. The Attorney General took no questions.