Inquiry into T&T coup
Nearly 21 years after members of a radical Muslim group sought to overthrow the then Trinidad and Tobago, a Commission of Inquiry opened in Trinidad today confident that its report “will be the final and definitive word on those events”.
Prominent Barbadian jurist, Sir David Simmons, who is chairing the five-member Commission, said that while academics and journalists have written extensively on the events of July 27, 1990, “we have been assigned the very heavy responsibility to examine the events surrounding the attempted coup in a quasi judicial manner with a view to closing that chapter in this country’s history”.
The eight-month-old People’s Partnership government agreed to the establishment of the Commission to probe the events surrounding the attempted coup by members of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen group to remove the government of then prime minister ANR Robinson.
The group’s leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, who has in the past publicly indicated a willingness to testify before any commission, led more than 100 members in storming the Parliament and the lone television station in a coordinated attack hoping to overthrow the Robinson administration.
At least 24 people, including one legislator, Leo Des Vignes, were killed during the six day insurrection that ended on August 1. Bakr and his men were tried for treason, but the Court of Appeal upheld the amnesty offered to secure their surrender, and they were released.
However, The London-based Privy Council, the country’s highest court, later invalidated the amnesty, but the Muslimeen members were not re-arrested.
Sir David said that while the terms of reference allow the Commission to identify anyone or organization involved in the attempted coup, “our ability …may well be limited by operations of law”.
He said it was a matter of legal record that some of the persons who were involved in the attempted coup were previously prosecuted for a variety of offences and that their cases reached as far as the London-based Privy Council, the country’s final court.
“Those matters are now…beyond the purview of this Commission,” he said, noting that while the Privy Council had made a ruling that it would be an abuse of process to seek once more to prosecute the Muslimeen, “however our terms of reference do not prevent us from identifying, and if necessary recommending the prosecution of other persons not being the beneficiary of the decision of the Privy Council who may have been involved in criminal conduct during the period” of the events.
“Whereas the Commission shall not pursue a vendetta against any person or persons we shall not shrink from carrying out our terms of reference to the extent warranted by the evidence produced before us and in accordance with the law”.
Sir David said that the Commission intends to conduct the inquiry guided by the relevant legislation and the rules of procedure, adding “I also wish to state that we are independent and I trust that we shall be seen to be independent of all of the branches of government”.
He also promised that while the Commission is “clothed” by some of the procedures and regulations of the High Court “our inquiry will be conducted in a less formal manner than in a court of law”.
He said while the Commission of Inquiry will be seeking to find facts, it will nonetheless be “obliged to receive evidence of opinion because of the very nature of some of our terms of reference”.
But he urged all persons “who can give evidence do so” since it would be “critical to our ultimate findings and report.
“We are sensitive to the fact the events of 1990 were traumatic for many persons and there may no doubt be residual physiological scars which will make it unpalatable to some persons to re-live the events, we understand that, but we hope that after 20 years the worst effects of such scars may have been reduced.”
Sir David the Commission has before it “a fairly long list” of witnesses and that it will write to those persons “inviting them to give evidence”.