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Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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State witness thrown out of protection programme: My life is ruined
For almost 12 years of his life, Owen (not his real name) lived like a prisoner in the Witness Protection Programme as he waited to testify for the State in a murder trial. He gave up his freedom, put his life at risk, and he kept his whereabouts a secret from his family and friends. Now thrown out of the programme, Owen, an amputee, regretted giving evidence in court after the State failed to uphold its side of the bargain while he stayed in the programme.
Owen, 44, who was promised the opportunity to learn a skill, has since retained the services of attorney Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj to proceed with legal action against the State for failing to deliver on its word. Maharaj is also seeking adequate compensation for Owen, who accepted $92,000 from the State after he was asked to leave the programme. Since leaving the programme, Maharaj said his client has been in danger, as threats have been repeatedly made on his life.
Maharaj is calling for Owen to be protected by the State. In a face-to-face interview with the Sunday Guardian at Maharaj’s law office in San Fernando on October 9, Owen spoke about the trials and tribulations he faced while in the programme.
How Owen’s life changed
On the night of November 12, 2001, Owen’s life changed when his friend Junior Fredericks alias Ombi was sprayed with bullets in Laventille. Owen was also shot five times to the lower part of his body and was admitted to the Port-of-Spain General Hospital. For weeks, Owen remained under police guard at the hospital as nurses and doctors tried to save his left leg. The leg later became infected and was amputated, forcing Owen to move around in a wheelchair and use a colostomy bag to collect his waste.
As the main witness to the murder, Owen was approached by the State to give evidence against the three accused—Andy Brown, Brian Barrington and Sebastien Joseph. He complied and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government to give evidence in court. The State in return offered to provide Owen with a skill, adequate compensation and protection, all of which they did not live up to, he said.
Owen gave up his freedom, family and friends expecting in return—justice and for his life to later return to normalcy. For years, the case dragged before the court. In 2010, in a surprise twist, the charge against all three accused was dismissed.
Life started going downhill
From there, Owen admitted, his life started to go downhill. The police protection he received was unexpectedly taken away from him. He was asked to leave the programme. Out of the programme, Owen started getting death threats, which he reported at the Longdenville Police Station. Owen recalled that on June 28, 2013, he was taken to the Gasparillo Police Station where he was offered $92,000 to leave the programme, even though he had not received any job training.
By then, Owen was no longer using crutches to move around. The State had outfitted him with a $46,000 prosthetic leg. “They (two officials of the programme) asked me to sign for the money, which I rejected. I was told that I had to leave the programme because they (Government) could no longer afford my upkeep. I begged and even cried for them to keep me, but they refused to budge.” Owen said the officials kept insisting that he should not turn down the money, since it was the highest sum ever offered to a state witness.
Shortly after, his belongings were dropped off at the station. “I didn’t know what to do. I was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Owen said. For several weeks, Owen kept a low profile at the home of friends, until he applied for a disability allowance.
Each month he collects a $1,500 disability grant, a far cry from the $2,800 stipend he received for his upkeep as a state witness.
‘My back was against the wall’
The State also provided its state witnesses with health care services, accommodation, cable television and medical attention, which he could not afford. “I was put in a financial bind and eventually accepted the $92,000 because my back was against the wall. I had no job and savings to fall back on. It was like starting my life all over again. Only this time, I was at a great disadvantage with my disability.” The 12 years he served as a state witness, Owen said, he lived in five safe houses in central and south Trinidad.
The surroundings of one of the safe houses was overgrown with grass and infested with flies, Owen said, while two were not properly secured. At times, no police protection was provided. Owen first took up occupancy in Forres Park, Claxton Bay, close to the landfill with five other state witnesses who stole food stuff from each other when they had to prepare their daily meals.
“This brought contention among the state witnesses. So it was nothing new to hear them arguing and cussing one another over food and missing grocery items. This was part of the culture in the programme. I had grown accustomed to this lifestyle.” Owen said frustration and confinement only fuelled the fire. At the safe house in Forres Park, Owen remembered being told by a police officer to strip naked and squat on one leg after going out.
“Apart from feeling like a caged animal, I was humiliated and stripped of my dignity in the worst way. This worried me to no end.”
A sitting duck
On another occasion, the other state witnesses ganged up against Owen and demanded that he tote water from a tank downstairs to their upstairs apartment, while he hobbled on crotches. “They offered to pay me $1 for each bucket of water I fetched. They were just too lazy to do anything. Instead they spent their day watching television, idling, sleeping or eating. Nothing productive was done, which I had a problem with.”
He said, “If I had the slightest inclination that this was what I would have been subjected to, I would not have become a state witness. This has certainly left a sour taste in my mouth.” Owen said his life was now shattered and ruined. “I am disappointed. I feel betrayed and used. I should not have testified. I am on the run like a wanted criminal...a fugitive. I am not in a position to escape a gunman. I am a sitting duck. I can’t dodge a bullet to save my life.” Owen’s advice to witnesses interested in getting into the programme.
“Before you sign anything consult a lawyer, seek advice...”
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.”
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