Row in Trinidad over Assembly bill

BERT WILKINSON Special to the AmNews | 9/13/2012, 3:14 p.m.

A major row has broken out in Trinidad over a bill that was unanimously and recently passed in the island's Parliament allowing authorities to dismiss some cases before the courts if the trials were not completed in 10 years, saying the bill was taken before the house specifically to benefit several big financiers of the governing party.

Authorities argued that defendants had a right to apply to the courts for not guilty verdicts to be imposed on their trials if the cases had dragged on without completion for a decade or more. Many in the oil- and gas-rich twin-island republic with Tobago say they suspect that the multi-party People's Partnership administration deliberately passed the bill to free two of its major contributors, who were implicated in an airport corruption scandal in 2001.

Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson, known to be close with the government, have already jumped on the Aug. 30 proclamation of the bill and this week applied to the high court for their cases to be dismissed by having a court render them not guilty as allowed by the action. They were the main defendants in a major corruption and overbilling scandal involving construction of the island's new, trendy international airport.

As expected, Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard and Opposition Leader Keith Rowley expressed outrage at the passage of the bill and its implications for the society, saying extensive review is needed, as it could allow men who should be in jail to walk free.

"This much I can tell you, the opposition is in shock at these developments," said Rowley, who was ironically in Parliament when the bill was passed, with both opposition and government legislators voting for it. Gaspard said he remains "gravely concerned" and will be exploring his options in relation to the airport case and a possible appeal.

The act also abolishes preliminary inquiries or grand jury trials to determine if a serious case must go forward or be dismissed. Preliminary inquiries will be replaced through the appointment of a master of the high court, who will review cases to determine whether they are worthy of being sent to judge and jury for trial or if they can be handled by the lower courts or dismissed for lack of proper evidence.

Others charged with Galbaransingh and Ferguson include former cabinet ministers and businessmen who are now all eligible to apply to the courts for dismissals of their ongoing trials. Violent crimes like murder and rape are not dismissible under the new legislation, officials say.