Riot police ‘corral’ Parliament protesters
Riot police moved away a large and passionate crowd, of mostly Opposition protesters, assembled to voice their objection to the Constitution (Amendment) Bill debated by the Senate at the Parliament building, Tower D, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain yesterday.
Although there were pro-Government supporters, who wore yellow, the colour of the United National Congress, the majority partner of the People’s Partnership adminstration, they were outnumbered by protesters wearing red, the colour of the Opposition People’s National Movement.
Both groups waved placards, held banners and chanted.
At about midday, approximately two dozen riot police went out into the crowd of mainly opposition supporters, and began to corral them. Resisting the riot police, some people refused to move.
One man ran out onto the westbound lane and laid down in the middle of Wrightson Road. Four of the riot police officers had to lift and carry him safely to the pavement. The man refused to get up off the ground after the police moved him.
As the riot police moved the crowd away from the entrance to Parliament, people were in the middle of the westbound lane. Police had to halt traffic for more than 20 minutes before they could get the people out of the road. Eventually cars were allowed to move again, but with a two- lane restriction.
A scuffle took place between the riot police and a man beating a drum. The man resisted and a fracas ensued. He was eventually restrained on the ground. A woman, who was standing near him, was accidently pushed to the ground. Children who were near the tussle began to cry and even elderly women complained of the incident. The group began singing “Move Satan move.”
Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) member, Dr Merle Hodge, was sitting in the crowd on a portable chair. She engaged the police, asking why the crowd had to move. She said if they were in the old Parliament building at the Red House on Abercromby Street they would have been able to gather in Woodford Square.
“They started to threaten us the last time, and now they are carrying it out. They are playing with fire. You see how the people are riled up there, let them go along. I don’t know since when the law changed. I don’t know why all of a sudden we cannot stand up by our Parliament. Take that as a sign. It is a withdrawal of rights,” Hodge said.
Opposition Senator Faris Al-Rawi said he had never seen the police react in that manner. He questioned why, when there had been larger crowds in front of Parliament, that there were so many riot police yesterday.
“This is the first time in my memory that I have seen police with riot shields in front of the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago. This causes me great concern. We have had protests significantly larger than this before. I wonder why we are seeing police in a circumstance of riot gear?” Al-Rawi queried.
National Security Minister, Senator Garry Griffith, said he was not aware of any police brutality, and said a decision to call out the riot police would have been made by the Commissioner of Police. He said he did not know why the people were moved yesterday, and not moved two weeks ago when the Bill was debated in the House of Representatives.
“It is the right of citizens to support a government, or to voice their concerns. Whilst at the same time we need to ensure that law and order is maintained. The reason for the police being here is to ensure just that,” Griffith said.
He said neither he nor Senate Vice President James Lambert, who presided over the debate, were the ones to direct the police. He said a decision was made from Police Headquarters based on a threat assessment.
Newsday spoke to Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams who said he was not yet briefed on the matter, and could not give a comment.
PM challenges public if its against runoff bill: Vote us out in 2015
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar yesterday said voting on the controversial Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 would not be delayed and she was prepared to commit political suicide for it if it came to that. The PM further threw out a bold challenge to the electorate to vote out the People’s Partnership in the 2015 general election if they did not want the bill. Her bold stance came even as protesters, both for and against the bill, threw jabs at each other and the anti-bill challengers clashed with the police.
While the tensions rose on the outside, Persad-Bissessar in piloting the bill in the Senate, said: “For those of the view that I am committing political suicide, I am prepared to take that risk. I am not daunted. As a politician and a prime minister, my interest is not for my political survival but for the people. “If this thing is so bad, well, vote us out in 2015.”
She reiterated that the People’s Partnership (PP) had promised constitutional reform in its manifesto and intended to fulfil that promise, saying T&T cannot continue in the same old political system. She asked: “They are saying have more consultations, delay the bill. For how long? We have been talking constitutional reform for nearly 50 years. The time has come not to talk the talk but to walk the talk.”
Persad-Bissessar said a prime minister had never come to the Senate before to pilot a bill but in declaring that debate on the bill will continue, she said the Government would listen to the views put forward. Affirming her belief that the bill will take power out of politicians’ hands and put it in the hands of the people, she said the existing Westminster system gave an advantage which the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) did not want to relinquish.
“We are of the view politicians must not lead from the tower but from the battlefield,” she said. She said the Independence Constitution was drafted more than 40 years ago and since then several efforts were made to reform it. There were six constitution reform commissions and none of their recommendations were entered into the statute books, she said.
Addressing concerns over the bill, she said there were 21 consultations on it throughout the country and said more people should have come forward and expressed their views. “But we are here. We will listen and then vote. We are quite prepared to listen to the debate. The senators are prepared to bring their non-partisan views,” she noted.
Persad-Bissessar asked what could be so fundamentally wrong with the three main provisions in the bill, the right to recall a non-functioning MP, fixed term limits for a prime minister and the runoff ballot. While the Opposition was against the bill, she said, Jamaica and Barbados were welcoming it. The PM said she knew most of the fear was over the runoff ballot. “There is the thought by some that the proposed runoff ballot could lead to stealing the election.
“That is a very dangerous charge,” she said. But, she said, those making the accusation have yet to describe how that could be done and demonstrated how it could benefit the ruling party. “How can it be that we said we are giving the people a greater say and we will be stealing the election?” she asked. Allaying fears that the British Westminster system will be removed, she said: “We are not removing the first-past-the-post system. We are refining it.”
She said facing a runoff in an election would not necessarily guarantee defeat either, since the votes could go any way. She said, on the contrary, the runoff ballot would not eliminate third parties but give them a second chance. The PM said there have been some 47 political parties in T&T and few survived. She also announced that a Constituency Development Fund would be announced in the upcoming budget, in which each constituency would be given $10 million.