Rasta wins appeal for shaved 'locks'
By Theron Boodan, newsday.co.tt
Rastafarian Damian Belfonte, who was starved, beaten and had his dreadlocks cut off by the Prison Authority, and who was not informed of his right to an attorney when arrested for not paying a fine, won his appeal yesterday. Belfonte had filed a constitutional motion through his attorneys, Dr Fenton Ramsahoye SC and Anand Ramlogan, but the trial judge had dismissed his motion with costs. The judge said that Belfonte should have made use of the available common-law procedure rather than pursue constitutional proceedings which were only to be invoked in exceptional circumstances, and therefore Belfonte's proceedings were an abuse of process. The judge had based her decision on the Privy Council ruling in the matter of Jaroo v AG.
Chief Justice Satnarine Sharma and Justices Margot Warner and Ivor Archie of the Appeal Court overturned that judgment. They agreed that Belfonte's attorneys had brought the right proceedings before the court, having regard to the undisputed breach of Belfonte's constitutional rights. As a result, the Court of Appeal ordered that the matter be remitted to the judge below to enter judgment against the State in the following terms: A declaration that the appellant's right to be informed of his right to retain and instruct a legal adviser of his own choice without delay, and to hold communication with him was infringed; a declaration that the appellant's right to freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance was infringed.
The court also made an order for damages (if any) resulting from the said breaches to be assessed. The State will also have to pay Belfonte's legal costs fit for senior and junior attorneys. The State was represented by Deputy Solicitor General Terrence Thorn and Karlene Seunath. The court also stated that the judge simply held that the originating (constitutional) motion was an abuse of process and failed to do anything more in aid of it. In the 16-page judgment delivered by Sharma, he said, "A judge in my view should make every effort to save the proceedings where it is just and reasonable to do so. Matters of procedure are to be kept flexible in order to do justice between the parties. This is clearly reflected in Order 2 of the Rules of the Supreme Court. Striking out for an abuse of process must be a last resort."
Belfonte was arrested on November 3, 1998, for the non-payment of fines arising out of narcotic offences committed. The fines amounted to $350 and $800. He secured a banker's cheque for the Clerk of the Peace in the sum of $1,150. He allegedly gave it to a policeman named Brown. Brown held the cheque for one year and the money was not paid to the court, unknown to Belfonte. It was only after his arrest that Belfonte's mother retrieved the cheque from Brown and paid the outstanding fines. Belfonte remained in prison from November 3 - 25, 1998. Brown denied receiving the cheque. During Belfonte's incarceration, prison officers cut off his dreadlocks and subjected him to a diet containing meat, which was contrary to his religious beliefs and practices.
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