Illegal and out of line is the view of the Law Association on reports of soldiers carrying out operations on their own. It noted with deep concern reports of soldiers performing police duties, including search and entry into citizens' homes, and attempting to arrest people. Breaking its silence on the issue, the association, in a media statement issued shortly after 7 pm last night, said the actions of soldiers in the field could only be lawful if they were complying with the instructions of a police officer. It called for the rules on such exercises to be clearly laid out and for alleged abuses by soldiers to be investigated.
Last week, acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams said he did not request soldier patrols independent of the police and added that rogue soldiers could be arrested and charged.
He said the last request for joint patrols was made in January. Williams added that soldiers were not authorised to search and exercise police powers. National Security Minister Gary Griffith said last week: “There is nothing illegal in a patrol independent of police officers” but acknowledged the concerns about the need for a police presence in cases where arrests and searches of homes and vehicles were required.
Griffith said the objection to the patrols were being made by a few and the majority of people welcomed them. After the murder of Lance Cpl Kayode Thomas on June 29, soldiers from Camp Ogden were deployed in the crime hotspots of Laventille and east Port-of-Spain and also carried out operations in Toco, Champs Fleurs and Couva in search of a man they reportedly said was a suspect.
Several people complained that the soldiers were acting on their own, carrying out searches and detaining people. Some also claimed they were beaten and questioned about the whereabouts of the suspect, Dillon “Bandy” Skeete.
Police, however, said Skeete was not wanted in connection with the killing. The Law Association statement, signed by its president Seenath Jairam, said although he supported any and all legitimate efforts to combat the surge of crime “such efforts must be conducted within the confines of laws of T&T and with due respect for the rule of law and the constitutional rights of persons.”
He pointed out: "Any search, seizure or arrest of civilians executed by members of the Defence Force can only be legally done on the instruction of a police officer, failing which no member of the Defence Force has the jurisdiction and/or authority to carry out same. “Any purported search, seizure and/or arrest of a civilian by a member of the Defence Force without being so instructed is therefore unlawful."
Jairam called for deeper collaboration between the Defence Force and the Police Service and “the refinement of and adherence to clear protocols to guide joint patrols and searches, arrests and detentions.He added: "In the interest of transparency and recognition of the fundamental rights of individuals, the association urges that a proper and urgent investigation be conducted into recent allegations of abuse of citizens. "The association underscores that these steps are necessary to ensure that the constitutional rights of citizens are preserved, even as innovative methods are utilised to combat the scourge of crime."