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Judge, judiciary staff come under threats
A police investigation has been launched into a series of threats made against High Court judge Mark Mohammed and several members of staff at the judiciary. The threats came in the form of two letters that were delivered to Mohammed and the judiciary’s marshal office during the recently-concluded sedition trial of Jamaat-al-Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr. The first letter was delivered directly to Mohammed on July 13, by an attorney participating in the trial.
The letter was allegedly given to the attorney by the wife of a man now in remand while awaiting trial for murder and kidnapping charges. The exchange was allegedly captured on CCTV cameras positioned outside the High Court. The T&T Guardian was told that although the letter did not contain any explicit threats, it stated that if Bakr were not freed of the four criminal charges, there would be serious consequences.
The letter was also said to contain several Arabic verses and Islamic quotations. Almost three weeks after the first letter, the second one was delivered to the marshal’s offices at the Hall of Justice by a man who was reportedly wearing Muslim garb. After delivering the letter to a marshal in the office, sources said the messenger issued a verbal threat, warning that all of the court’s marshals should “fear for their lives.”
Both letters bore the letterhead of a Islamic group which is not known to be linked to Abu Bakr or his organisation. After the second threat, ASP Ajith Persad of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was summoned to the court to initiate an investigation. Persad has since been assigned as lead investigator of the threats. Attorneys who participated in the three-month trial, together with judicial support staff close to the case, are expected to be interviewed by investigators this week.
Senior police sources said that the investigation was put on hold during the trial, as it was thought that an intense police investigation would have raised suspicion in the jury room and influenced their eventual verdicts. Since the start of the trial in January, there has been increased security at the Port-of-Spain Third Criminal Court.
A supplementary metal detector was placed at the court’s entrance and members of the public were also required to lodge their cellphones before they were allowed to gain entry into the court. After learning of the last letter, which was hand-delivered to the Hall of Justice, Knox Street, Port-of-Spain, on August 7, Mohammed exercised his judicial discretion, ordering that the all-female, nine-member jury with six alternates be sequestered.
During a closed chamber court hearing on that date, Mohammed discussed the sequestering of the jury with the attorneys in the case. He revealed that the judiciary had received a similar threat only days earlier. That threat, he said, came in a telephone call which was placed to the Port-of-Spain Magistrates Court. Mohammed stated that information of the threats be withheld from the jury, saying that such information may cause the jury’s verdict in the matter to be prejudiced.
Bakr’s attorney Wayne Sturge protested against the move to sequester the jury, saying that it would have negative effects on his client’s case. Special state prosecutor Dana Seetahal, SC, supported the idea, stating that the threats should be taken seriously and the jury should be sequestered to shield them from outside interference for the remainder of the trial. The idea was also supported by Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard, SC, who was consulted before Mohammed gave his final ruling.
When announcing his decision to the jury, Mohammed was careful to note that his decision to sequester them was not spurred by any action from Bakr. The jurors were escorted to their homes to collect their personal effects by the court’s marshals and police officers. They were then taken to an unidentified hotel in Port-of-Spain where they stayed under police guard until the trial concluded last Friday.
Even after deliberating for almost five and a half hours on the last day of the trial, the jury was unable to come to an unanimous verdict on the charges against Bakr. When the time had elapsed, Mohammed thanked the jurors for their work during the trial and discharged them. He then ordered that Bakr be retried for the offences.
Bakr, 70, of La Puerta, Diego Martin, still faces charges of making a statement with a seditious intent, endeavouring to provoke a breach of the peace, inciting others to demand money from the Muslim community and former Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) president Bro Noble Khan by menace. The charges stem from Bakr’s controversial Eid-ul-Fitr sermon which was delivered at the Jamaat’s Mucurapo Road, St James mosque on November 4, 2005.
The matter will be placed on the cause list of the Port-of-Spain Assizes until a date for the trial is set by the courts.
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