A High Court Judge has strongly criticised former Government officials for their handling of opposition to the construction of the controversial Debe to Mon Desir segment of the Point Fortin Highway project.
Justice James Aboud gave the criticism in a 62-page judgement on Monday, in which he upheld a lawsuit brought by environmentalist Dr Wayne Kublalsingh and the Highway Reroute Movement (HRM).
In the lawsuit, Kublalsingh and his group successfully claimed that they had a legitimate expectation that the Government would have considered their technical concerns before moving ahead with the project.
In his judgement, Aboud sought to analyse two reports which were commissioned by the People’s Partnership Government following extensive protest action, which included two hunger strikes by Kublalsingh.
In terms of an initial report produced by a team from the National Infrastructure Property Development Company (Nidco), Aboud stated that it could not be considered a review as it simply restated and justified the Government’s policy without regard to the concerns raised.
“To assert that the review was not intended to be independent is akin to saying that I should sit on the appeal of my own judgement. The Nidco report which comprised a mere 10 pages was simply a justification for constructing the highway and did not meaningfully address the concerns of the HRM or the claimants,” Aboud said, as he described it as a travesty and sham.
He noted that through analysis of public comments made by several Government ministers including former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the group expected a legitimate review before construction continued.
Aboud also noted that the report had already been prepared and not disclosed when the Ministry of Works solicited feedback from Kublalsingh and the group.
“Such a consultation is a mere pretence or charade that something meaningful is taking place. It was not in keeping with several promises that had been made,” Aboud said, as he noted the State’s conduct breached every rule of natural justice.
In terms of the second report prepared by the Highway Review Committee (HRC) led by former Independent Senator Dr James Armstrong, Aboud questioned why its recommendation, to stop the project to allow for more technical reviews, was not followed.
“Having spent over $700,000 for the HRC Report, it is unconscionable that the Government should have decided to entirely disregard its recommendations,” Aboud said.
He described the Government’s handling of both reports as a “shocking betrayal”.
“The State ought to strive to embody the nation’s highest moral and ethical principles in all that it says and does,” he said.
“In effect, the actions of the Government appear to have been an attempt to out-manoeuvre Dr Kublalsingh and the HRM by any means necessary in order to facilitate the continued construction of the highway as originally conceived,” he added.
As a secondary issue, the group also sought and obtained a declaration that the alleged actions of former national security minister Jack Warner and the T&T Regiment in destroying the Debe protest camp on June 27, 2012, were illegal.
Aboud also ruled that Kublalsingh and HRM member Elizabeth Rambharose has been assaulted and battered by the soldiers.
In addition to the $500,000 in damages awarded to the group for breaches of their constitutional rights, Aboud awarded Rambharose $15,000 in damages for the attack. Kublalsingh received $50,000 as he was arrested and detained by police unlike Rambharose.
“If a party of police or army officers invaded property I occupied with intentions to demolish it and I was convinced that they had no legal right to enter it, it would be reasonable for me to resist them,” About said.
He also noted that the action ordered by Warner was disproportionate as they were engaged in peaceful activity.
“I get the impression that Mr Warner’s decisions were meant to demonstrate the brute force of the State and its intolerance of the HRM’s persistent dissent,” About said, as he noted that ownership of the site could not be raised as no State-agency sought to invoke its title to evict them.
Despite the group’s legal victory in the lawsuit, the group is still challenging the outcome of a separate lawsuit over the current Government’s move to restart the project after it stalled due to issues with financing and Brazilian contractor OAS Construtora.
In a judgement, in April, Justice Ricky Rahim ruled that although the group had a legitimate expectation that there would have been consultation before the restart, the State could not be held liable for breaching it as it was in the public’s interest to do so.
Rahim said: “There is a high public interest component in ensuring that money already expended is not wasted or thrown away by way of the degradation of existing structures without properly securing them, in this case by completing them.”
As part of the appeal, the group has filed for an injunction to stop the work over alleged breaches of the Land Acquisition Act. The injunction application is expected to come up for hearing on November 5. A date for the hearing of the substantive appeal is yet to be set by the Judiciary.
Kublalsingh and the HRM were represented by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, Fyard Hosein, SC, Rishi Dass, Anil Maraj, and Vijaya Maharaj.
The State was represented by Russell Martineau, SC, Deborah Peake, SC, Kelvin Ramkissoon, Shastri Roberts, Kelisha Bello, Kendra Mark, and Ryanka Ragbir.