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Sunday, December 08, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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State witness to sue State
For the first time in T&T, a state witness will take the Government to court for failing to uphold its side of the bargain while he stayed in the Witness Protection Programme. The attorney who will fight the case is former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj.
“It will be a novel case...a landmark case. I always enjoy doing landmark cases and sometimes even losing at the High Court level and Court of Appeal level and winning at the final level because you would have no precedent for these novel cases. You are making new law, you are developing the law to give protection to people,” Maharaj said.
Maharaj said he was in the process of assessing the nature of the action to be filed in court because the Government appeared not to have fulfilled its promises to one of its witnesses and his client, who he named as Owen, an amputee. Owen, 44, a father of one, was the main witness in the case involving Junior Fredericks alias Ombi, who was shot multiple times on November 12, 2001, in Laventille.
Owen was also a victim of the shooting. He was shot five times to the lower part of his body and was admitted to the Port-of-Spain General Hospital, where he spent 11 months under police protection. Owen’s left leg, which became infected, was amputated, forcing him to move around in a wheelchair and use a colostomy bag to collect his waste.
Owen later signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government to turn state witness and testify against Andy Brown, Brian Barrington and Sebastien Joseph for the murder of Fredericks. For years the case dragged on in the court, and in May of 2010 the charges against all three accused were dismissed. Not long after, Joseph was murdered in Laventille. Fearing that his life was in danger, the state kept Owen in a safe house up until June of 2013 after an assessment showed that he was no longer at risk.
But within days of leaving the programme, Owen complained of receiving threats from blocked cell numbers. He was repeatedly warned on his phone to watch his back. On August 18, 2013, he also received a text message from a cell phone (number withheld) which read “I will kill you.” These matters were reported to the Longdenville Police Station. Maharaj said a police officer who took Owen’s report instructed him to go to a telecommunications provider in Maraval to find out in whose name the cellphone was registered.
However, the staff at the telephone company informed Owen that only the police had authorisation to obtain such information. To date, the police have not contacted Owen and the matter has not been investigated, Maharaj said.
Maharaj said his client’s life was now at risk and feels he should be given protection as a matter of urgency. “The threats continue and are real,” Maharaj said. Maharaj has since written Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and National Security Minister Garry Griffith on the matter. Asked how soon the matter will go before the court, Maharaj said conceptualising a new case takes time.
“We are hoping to get pre-action protocol letters sent out to give the State an opportunity to resolve this matter.” Maharaj said his biggest setback was obtaining documents from the T&T Police Service with regards to Owen’s files.
“They have not kept their promises so far, despite several requests. We have written a final request. If they do not give it to us I am going to file an application for judicial review under the Freedom of Information Act to get an order from the court commanding them to give us the information. So whatever it takes for us to get the documents and records we will get it. We are prepared to take this matter to the highest level, even if it means going to the Privy Council to get justice for this man and for future state witnesses in the country.”
According to Maharaj, they had agreed to provide Owen with a skill so he could earn a livelihood and also promised that he would be provided with adequate compensation when he comes out of the programme. “This did not happen,” Maharaj pointed out. “This is a serious violation.”
Having played an integral role several years ago in piloting the Witness Protection Bill and ensuring that the witness protection law was passed in Parliament while he served as attorney general, Maharaj said he was convinced that the Government’s uncaring treatment towards witnesses would not assist in any future fight against crime.
“So if he did his part of it and they did not do their part, what they have done is they have betrayed him...and the State betraying witnesses cannot be productive or an asset against crime. So the years he spent in the programme, if he was not there he would have been able to help himself. He gave the State the right to own him for 12 years and all he got out of it was $92,000. He upheld his side of the bargain.”
A sitting duck
Maharaj said he intends to send a message to the Government that they must treat witnesses properly and address their injustices. Maharaj said while other witnesses are being taken advantage of, the public is suffering. “The public is not getting the benefit of state witnesses cooperating.” And as a result, he said, the country’s detection rate remains very low. “As a matter of fact, it is less than ten per cent for serious crime. The conviction rate is not even one per cent for serious crime.”
Maharaj said the whole concept of the programme was for the State to give incentives to witnesses who would co-operate and give evidence in return. In the USA, Maharaj said witnesses are provided with jobs, homes, new identities, their families are protected and witnesses eventually live normal lives after testifying in crucial cases.
George: I cannot answer your question
On October 19, Justice Minister Emmanuel George when told about Owen’s plight replied, “I cannot answer your question.” Next week: Owen, in a face-to-face interview with the Sunday Guardian at Maharaj’s law office in San Fernando on October 9, speaks about the trials and tribulations he faced while in the programme.
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