For close to 42 years, 1 Mucurapo Road, St James, has been the subject of a land dispute between the Jamaat al Muslimeen and the State.
In the eyes of the Jamaat, the 8.8 acres of land the religious group has occupied since 1978 rightfully belongs to them. To the State and Port-of-Spain City Corporation, the Islamic organisation has been squatting on their land for decades.
That difference in opinion has led to several flashpoints over the years.
In 1984, the court ordered the Jamaat to vacate the land and to demolish all illegal buildings on the site. Abu Bakr refused to comply, serving 21 days in jail for contempt of court.
In April 1990, months before the coup attempt, police and soldiers stormed the Jamaat’s compound when the organisation was attempting to construct a school.
In 1998, there was another standoff when the Basdeo Panday-led government moved in on the land and constructed a 600 ft barbed wire fence.
Following negotiations, the State agreed to lease 1.4 hectares of the 3.5 hectares of land to the Jamaat.
In 2003, the state paid $625,000 in settlements to the Jamaat for the destruction of the organisation’s property during the 1990 coup attempt.
In 2005, after Jamaat al Muslimeen Yasin Abu Bakr was charged for statements he made during Eid celebrations, police raided the compound, destroying his office. A high-powered rifle, hand grenade and 700 rounds of ammunition were found on the compound.
In 2020, are the Jamaat and State headed towards another major dispute?
Well, if you’ve taken a drive along the Audrey Jeffers Highway recently, you may have noticed that the view of the Jamaat al Muslimeen’s Mosque is clearer. Most of the trees that once obscured the view have been removed and some work appeared to be have done with the aid of tractors and backhoes.
There is also gravel and other material on site, suggesting that the work being done there isn’t finished.
Offering a potential revenue stream, billboards have also been constructed on the site. Advertising on a highway billboard, we are told, typically costs between $24,000 to $26,000 a year.
So who is responsible for this clearing? Acting Commissioner of State Lands Bhanmati Seecharan said she is concerned by what is taking place at the site.
There have been no official requests to do work on the land and permission was not granted for any individual or organisation to clear the property, she said.
Seecharan said the situation came to her attention a few weeks ago when one of her officers saw stockpiling taking place on the land. Some of her officers in the company of police officers visited the site.
“Things continued and a request was made to the TTPS team for illegal mining for assistance to go again.
However, Sgt Bissessar indicated that they were disbanded due to COVID-19,” Seecharan said.
“No one told us the team was disbanded.”
Police have not returned to the site with officials from the Commissioner of State Lands Office since.
When contacted, Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said he was not aware of the office’s complaint.
He, however, expressed a willingness to look into the matter if he received more information.
With the State, which owns 1,9324 hectares of the land, indicating that it’s not responsible for the work, Guardian Media sought answers from the head of the Port-of-Spain City Corporation Mayor Joel Martinez.
The City Council owns the remainder of the land, approximately 1,5203 hectares.
“No. We are not doing any work there,” Martinez said when asked.
He left it there.
That leaves, of course, the Jamaat al Muslimeen.
Bakr: there’s nothing to it
Without much fuss, Imam Yasin Abu Bakr confirmed the Jamaat was responsible.
The Imam said, “You know the school closed, so we were just doing some cleaning work. There’s nothing to it.”
He said to us over the phone, “The land has been there, it has always been there, and we are just doing some cleaning.”
“Police were here a couple of weeks ago, and they didn’t do anything. So, there’s nothing there. It’s just some people making some bacchanal.” he added.
However, when Guardian Media visited the site, the scope of the work appeared far more extensive than just routine cleaning.
In addition to backhoes, there were multiple vehicles near the area where work was done, including a construction truck.
Many hectares stretching as far back as the mosque to the edge of the river separating the land from the Audrey Jeffers Highway were cleared.
It appeared sand had been poured to create a smoother surface.
The clearing extended laterally to the Port-of-Spain City Corporation’s Sanitation Department, with recently-cut trees ready to be removed from the site.
And in keeping with what the acting Commissioner of State Lands said, there were stockpiles of material still there.
It was in February of this year, chairman of the Land Settlement Agency Ossley Francis called for action to be taken on indiscriminate squatting.
He is quoted as saying that too many people are squatting and that the law needs to be urgently amended to deal with the increase.
At least 50,000 people are squatting on state land, while another 20,000 people are on private land, Mr Francis estimated.
Under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development’s Squatter Regularisation Programme, someone illegally occupying state land before January 1st, 1998 had to apply for a Certificate of Comfort before October 27, 2000.
A certificate of comfort gives a squatter the right to protection from eviction from State Land.
It does not give a squatter a legal interest in the land, but if the person is to be relocated, they are guaranteed an alternate lot of land.
According to the recommendations of the Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 coup attempt, it is in the public interest that the portion of land occupied by the Jamaat al Muslimeen’s school be acquired by the State, with payment of appropriate compensation.
The school, according to WASA, denies the authority access to a manhole.
The relevant parties, according to the Commission, should enter into negotiations to discuss and settle the acquisition of the land, as well as the relocation of the school.
Since its release, none of the relevant recommendations put forward in the commission’s report has been adhered to.
The following account is based primarily on the findings of the Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 Coup Attempt.
Returning from Canada in 1978, the Jamaat al Muslimeen, under the leadership of Yasin Abu Bakr, took possession of the land at #1 Mucurapo Road, previously occupied by the Islamic Missionaries Guild.
The Guild was given informal permission by former Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams to construct an Islamic Cultural Centre.
In January 1969, the then permanent secretary of the Ministry of Planning and Development wrote the Guild formally giving them permission to construct the requested centre.
The City Council, which owns part of the land, did not object and signed off on the proposal from the central government.
Measuring 8 acres, 2 roods and 5 perches, a plan was drawn for the land by the Director of Surveys.
Despite this, the guild never received an official lease.
In keeping with subsequent requests from the government and city council, the guild did not construct permanent structures.
Later on, members of the unincorporated Jamaat al Muslimeen moved in, occupying part of the City Council’s land in 1972.
The Jamaat, as documented in a High Court matter, remained there until Abu Bakr’s return to Trinidad in 1978.
That year, the Jamaat, still unincorporated, occupied significantly more acreage.
According to the state, this was without permission.
The Jamaat, however, believed they were entitled to the full eight acres of land because of the initial agreement between the state and the Islamic Missionary Guild.
But according to the Commission, the state in the initial agreement with the guild was transferring land that it did not own.
That was part of the Port-of-Spain City Council’s land.
Construction of buildings
In 1984, the Jamaat constructed several buildings on the land belonging to the City Council.
For many years, according to the commission’s report, the government and government agencies have written to the Jamaat seeking to stop the illegal occupation, but no action has been taken.
The only legal action against the Jamaat came in 1984 when the City Council obtained an ex parte interlocutory injunction to evict the organisation from the land.
Some within the Jamaat have argued that the state’s case in obtaining that injunction was based upon false evidence.
The commission found that the NAR government made attempts to resolve the long-standing land dispute, offering firstly five acres, and then ten acres, of land on a 20-year lease.
Both offers were allegedly rejected by the Imam.
The commission’s findings found that Imam Abu Bakr was “unreasonable, untrustworthy and negotiated in bad faith, deliberately causing negotiations to fail.”
It further alleged that the Jamaat accepted in 1990 that the 3.4 acres of land it was occupying was owned by the City Council, and the remainder was owned by the State.
Contrary to these claims, the Jamaat’s leadership has always maintained that it sought on numerous occasions to settle land negotiations with the Government but to no avail.
On April 21st, 1990, the Defence Force and Police Service, under instructions from the National Security Minister, set up camp at #1 Mucurapo Road occupying the buildings on the site.
According to the State, this was done to prevent further intrusion on its lands.
This incident came three months before the 1990 attempted coup.
Even after the coup attempt, the Jamaat was allowed to return to the site.
The commission noted that on October 18, 1993, the City Council leased its portion of the lands to the Jamaat at an annual rent of $6,000, but the Jamaat was not notified of this, only finding out through its own investigations.
The lease was never officially presented to the Islamic organisation.
The commission’s report said, “No plausible reason was given to the Commission for the failure to inform the Jamaat before 25 March 1988 that the President of the Republic had approved a lease five years earlier.”
It added, “We think the delay could not be attributed to bureaucratic bungling.”
In 1998, following another standoff with the Government, then led by former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, the Jamaat was offered a lease for the land.
The approved lease was for half of the 8.8 acres of land the Jamaat al Mulimeen had occupied since 1978.
Over the years, Jamaat leader Yasin Abu Bakr has claimed that UNC and PNM administrations promised him the rights to the rest of the land in exchange for assistance in general election campaigns.
The latest claim came in 2002 when former Prime Minister Patrick Manning called and won an early general election.
Bakr said the late former Prime Minister agreed to give him the land after the PNM’s victory at the polls but the transfer of land’s ownership never took place.
To this day, the land issue remains unresolved.