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President Paula-Mae Weekes.

SHARLENE RAMPERSAD

President Paula-Mae Weekes says she did not speak out in the weeks following Andrea Bharatt’s murder, despite public calls for her to do so, because she had no comfort to bring to citizens.

In her International Women’s Day message, published in yesterday’s newspaper, Weekes said citizens have instead brought comfort to her with their activism and outcry.

She recalled the population’s immediate response on February 4, when Bharatt’s decomposing body was found down a precipice in the Heights of Aripo, four days after she was kidnapped in Arima while on her way home from work.

“Citizens in anger and angst called out parliament, politicians, the police service, the Judiciary, attorneys-at-law, PH drivers, among others, for contributing, by act or omission, to their death and demanding immediate corrective measures. Frightened and concerned members of the population, predominantly women, marched, held placards aloft, participated in vigils, formed community groups and prayed for divine intervention,” Weekes said.

She described the response from politicians, police and other stakeholders as swift – with politicians pointing fingers at each other in the process.

She also noted the calls for her to speak, saying citizens have grown accustomed to instant reactions and social media fodder.

“Impassioned citizens enquired, some more civilly than others, where was the President while all of this was happening and why she, particularly as a woman, had said nothing … Letters to the Office of the President and comments online suggested that citizens wanted their President to, among other things, comfort them, bring the nation together, use “moral suasion to make the Government and Opposition find common ground” and, most of all, give them hope,” she said.

She said despite these calls, she was not ready to speak as President. Referencing her decades in the criminal justice system, Weekes said as a citizen she could have given an immediate earful.

“Having worked for 34 years as prosecutor, defence counsel, trial judge and appellate judge, I know all too well that women falling victim to serial rapists and murderers, or disappearing without a trace, is not a new phenomenon in our criminal landscape. Andrea and Ashanti were but the two most recent victims of men we call monsters, but if monsters, monsters of our own making.”

She said T&T is responsible for nurturing such monsters by failing to effectively socialise them in homes and schools and providing them with a social safety net to address their issues.

“Over the years, a number of heart-rending murders moved the nation and provoked social agitation. After each gruesome case, the same revolving excuses, discussions and suggestions—resume hanging; no bail for sex offenders; quicken the pace of justice; regularise “PH” Taxis; give women the means to arm themselves—were unpacked, all to no avail.”

Weekes said since 1982, when she started working at the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, 11 governments have been called upon to address this scourge.

But she said she does not believe the women of T&T are any more safe now than they were then. She noted that since she assumed office, 155 women have lost their lives to violence. This, she said, is why she waited until now to speak out.

“For some, this response might be too little, too late, and that is not an unreasonable view, but years of judgement writing have instilled the habit of deliberate reflection. I pondered, how do I comfort the nation in a time of crisis when the crisis is literally created by our society? To comfort is to give some assurance that will ease or alleviate feelings of grief and distress. What assurance could I offer? It would have been easy to trot out the formulaic “thoughts and prayers” or “better days are coming,” but I did not think that those platitudes would have efficacy and, in any event, while it may appear callous, I was not convinced that the Republic ought to be comforted at all.”

The President said she fears comfort will lull citizens back into a ‘collective stupor.’

She said the discomfort felt by many is what drove the activism and advocacy that have brought about several pieces of legislation from the Government, including pepper spray legislation and new sexual offences.

“I could offer no comfort,” she said.

She warned citizens not to lose sight of the strides their activism has made and urged the country to closely examine what made Bharatt’s death the tipping point, saying it is not sufficient to say ‘enough is enough.’

“I mean no disrespect, but I did laugh aloud at the idea that moral suasion by the apolitical President could have any salutary effect on politicians in opposing camps; were it so, many of our national problems would have long been solved. I am not the first, nor I suspect the last, President to urge politicians to put country first. On many occasions, most recently at the opening of the 12th Parliament, I advised the Government and Opposition to come together for the good of the country. This is an integral part of the duty of the President but I am not being modest when I say that I have a sneaking suspicion that my call is often trumped by political expediency.”

She said politicians are most persuaded by the voice of the electorate, adding citizens have been able to accomplish in a few short weeks what Presidents could not.

“Make no mistake, that objective will not be achieved overnight, we are in this for the long haul. Success depends on our ability to stay the course. Dare we hope?” Weekes asked.