“Please come back home,” a weeping Lydia Hinds, mother of 16-year-old Nicole Lezama, said yesterday as she appealed for the safe return of the teen who has been missing since Saturday.
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Not me and sex talk, says ASTT president
President of the Agricultural Society of T&T (ASTT) Dhano Sookoo has distanced herself from allegations that she was behind a plot to get rid of Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj. Sookoo was responding to media reports which claimed that members of a State board, under Maharaj’s ministry, were behind a criminal conspiracy to frame Maharaj on allegations of sexually abusing 300 women, fraud and impropriety.
“I have to be a lunatic to pull two people off the street and give them information like that,” Sookoo told the T&T Guardian yesterday. I find the story so pathetic.” She said she delivered a writ to the Express newspaper yesterday for previous articles. “My attorney Vashiest Maharaj is contemplating further action against the Express for bringing my reputation into disrepute,” she added.
Sookoo said with the exception of the sexual charges, the article contains a lot of allegations farmers made in a letter they delivered to Maharaj after a Port-of-Spain protest on October 28 last year. “What is really going on?” she asked. Sookoo said she was discharged from the Sangre Grande Hospital on Sunday for serious stress-related illnesses caused by articles published in the media suggesting she was involved in financial impropriety.
Sookoo said two women turned up at her home and said they were from the Social Development Ministry and wanted to discuss how agriculture could be used to eradicate poverty. She said she never discussed any sexual plot against Maharaj with them. “It’s the first time I am hearing that about him (assaulting women). I never heard that before.” Sookoo said she has always been open with the media and if she wanted to attack Maharaj she would have done so herself.
Maharaj and the ASTT elections
Maharaj, contacted for a response, was convinced there was an orchestrated plot against him and felt it was linked to the upcoming internal ASTT elections on Sunday. Admitting most of the allegations were made public by farmers at the protest last year, he said the affidavits, making the sexual claims, were delivered to his ministry last Thursday morning, the same day it was sent to the media. He said Sookoo appeared to dismiss the affidavits, given under oath, as inconsequential.
Concerning the elections, the existing ASTT board of 26 members has split with nearly one-half supporting Sylvester Pino for president. Vice-president Lal Bagalou, a former principal, has “crossed the floor” and is backing Pino and his slate, Farmers for Change and Progress. On the other side, Nawaz Karim, who farmers are claiming is Sookoo’s future son-in-law, is running for president. Sookoo, who held the post for six consecutive years, will not be contesting this year.
The ASTT is an independent body but receives an annual budgetary allocation from the government. It got $1.3 billion for this financial year. Bagalou alleged previous elections were rigged and spoke of extra ballot papers being printed. Asked if he was backing Pino’s slate, Maharaj said he was not concerned with the results. He just wanted an election that was free and fair and free from fear.
Asked if Karim was her prospective son-in-law, Sookoo said none of her five daughters were married. She said one daughter is a director on the ASTT board and she and Karim were friends.