Attorney Om Lalla believes that Trinidad and Tobago’s vibrant democracy will prevent any abuse of power under the new State of Emergency that has just come into effect.
“The suspension of rights is always something to be worried about. But states of emergencies are used in exceptional circumstances, as in this case. I don’t think there is a reason to worry because we are in a national crisis. It is a strict, harsh measure for the protection of life and liberty. The police have to do their jobs and not exceed their powers,” he told the Sunday Guardian.
He explained in simple language what a state of emergency means.
“A State of Emergency is a power that the President has in exceptional circumstances, if the President is satisfied that there should be an imposition of a state of emergency, which means that ordinary rights and privileges under the Constitution are suspended. A State of Emergency is only declared in very exceptional cases, as has been seen from our history.”
He referred to Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives the President the powers to make the declaration.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis the country is facing with the increasing numbers of cases and deaths does qualify as a situation where a state of emergency can be imposed.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley declared a State of Emergency with effect from midnight Saturday. He said the curfew period will run from 9 pm to 5 am. He said this was to ensure people have fewer opportunities to congregate and spread COVID-19.
Rowley warned, “If you don’t have to be out for exempted reasons, you stay home under the force of law.”
Lalla referred to the recent debate about whether police can enter private properties to stop parties and social gatherings deemed to be breaching the Public Health Regulations. He said this was no longer relevant, as the State of Emergency now allows law enforcement officers to do anything that is required to ensure compliance.
“Ordinarily, no one can prevent you from freedom of movement but it is now suspended. If you break that, you can be charged…so that police with search warrants can go onto properties. So any gatherings and events, any breaches of the public order that the police identify, they now have the power to intervene to enter premises. In the normal scheme of things those are the basic rights suspended.”
However, he said with the suspension of rights come a fear that constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and movement can be abused by the police.
“I think given social media, given an aggressive Commissioner of Police, it will keep the police in check and balance. But it does not take away from the fact that very often, suspension of rights leads to abuses taking place,” Lalla said.
“We can only hope given the circumstances, that in such a crisis where we all are affected, that there is reasonable conduct on the part of the police and individuals to respect the parameters of the State of Emergency.”
Speaking about the President’s role, he said President Paula-Mae Weekes would have been approached by the Prime Minister and she has to be satisfied that a State of Emergency is justified.
“If the President is satisfied, then a declaration is made by the President, which is then sent to Parliament for proclamation. The President may or may not make a public statement but it may be published in a formal way. The fact that the Prime Minister has already declared it means that he has already consulted with the President and already found favour in the application being made.”
Former minister of national security Stuart Young speaking in Parliament in January said: “Let’s understand what a State of Emergency means. It means I am abandoning my constitutional rights. So as a philosophical point of view, I don’t believe that you ever go that route until you are in an absolute last-stop position, and we’re far from there.”
According to the website of the Office of the President, only the President is authorised to declare a state of public emergency.
Up to 8.25 Saturday night, Guardian media was told that, “Her Excellency and staff are at the Office of the President awaiting documents from the Cabinet.”
Heerah: National Security must show discretion
Meanwhile, Garvin Heerah, Strategic Security Expert, Homeland Security and Safe City Operations said the State of the Emergency was expected.
“In all fairness, the country, the Government and the citizens were steering the beast in the face. In many circles, we appeared to be losing the fight. A major contributor was our complacency. The State of Emergency will definitely pull the reigns on this, institute Do’s and Don’ts and put various levels of control.”
He advised that the Government keep citizens up-to-date on how the situation evolves.
“I would advise that there be a detailed and comprehensive Public Awareness programme that updates the citizens on what is taking place at timely intervals. Not the Ministry of Health press conference. This should be what you can do, where you can and cannot go, how you can get there and emergency numbers must be set up for the period of the State of Emergency.”
The negative impact, he said, will be many limitations on movements and normal business operations and that citizens will be psychologically affected and would need support from the state agencies.
He hopes that the Ministry of National Security will play a twin role of enforcement and support.
“We must not get carried away with an atmosphere of State of Emergency and begin forcing ‘mano dura’ tactics on our citizens. We must understand that the State of Emergency is due to a pandemic, that is no respecter of person or position. So, citizens as you venture out, only when you have to, exercise full precautions.”
He advised all agents of National Security when they execute their operations to be tolerant and understanding, show discretion and work with the citizens.
“I close by making a clarion call to all arms of government, the ruling administration and the Opposition, both sides of the spectrum, to put away the foolish tit for tats and stop trying to seek cheap political points, come together as one team, unite your brainpower and strategise in a unified and synergised effort to win this war.”
A State of Emergency was declared in 1970 during the Black Power Revolution by then Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.
During the attempted coup by the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen against the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government under the then prime minister ANR Robinson, a State of Emergency was declared during the coup attempt and for a period after the coup.
On August 4, 1995, a State of Emergency was declared to remove the House Speaker Occah Seepaul by then prime minister Patrick Manning during a constitutional crisis. The Government had attempted to remove the speaker via a no-confidence motion, which failed. The State of Emergency was thus used to remove the speaker using the emergency powers granted.
Under the People’s Partnership government, then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar also announced a State of Emergency on August 22, 2011, in an attempt to crack down on gang activity and the trafficking of illegal drugs and firearms. The decision of the then president George Maxwell Richards to issue the proclamation for the State of Emergency was debated in the country’s Parliament, as required by the Constitution, on September 2, 2011, and passed by the required simple majority of the House of Representatives. On September 4, the Parliament extended the State of Emergency for a further three months. It ended in December 2011.
Excerpt from T&T’s Constitution:
8. (1) Subject to this section, for the purposes of this Chapter, the President may from time to time make a Proclamation declaring that a state of public emergency exists. (2) A Proclamation made by the President under subsection (1)shall not be effective unless it contains a declaration that the President is satisfied— (a) that a public emergency has arisen as a result of the imminence of a state of war between Trinidad and Tobago and a foreign State; (b) that a public emergency has arisen as a result of the occurrence of any earthquake, hurricane, flood, fire, outbreak of pestilence or of infectious disease, or other calamity whether similar to the foregoing or not; or (c) that action has been taken, or is immediately threatened, by any person, of such a nature and on so extensive a scale, as to be likely to endanger the public safety or to deprive the community or any substantial portion of the community of supplies or services essential to life.