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Cop awarded $300,000 for bogus charge
A police inspector who claimed he was framed for a crime he was investigating has been awarded over $300,000 in compensation.
High Court Judge Frank Seepersad made the order yesterday as he ruled that Insp Harridath Maharaj, now retired, was maliciously prosecuted for illegal logging by Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Harold Phillip.
In his 26-page judgment, Seepersad criticised Phillip’s investigation as he ruled that the senior officer did not have sufficient evidence to charge Maharaj with illegal logging in a protected forest reserve, when he did so in June 2004.
“The facts upon which the charges against Maharaj were premised were fundamentally flawed and deficient and officer Phillip’s decision to charge Maharaj without the requisite evidence that was necessary so as to form a reasonable belief in Maharaj’s guilt was in the circumstances reckless,” Seepersad said as he awarded Maharaj $185,000 for being maliciously prosecuted and $65,000 in compensation for damage to his reputation by being charged for a criminal offence while in active duty.
He was also granted interest on both sums of damages and the State was ordered to pay his legal costs for defending the criminal charges and for bringing the subsequent civil lawsuit.
In his lawsuit, Maharaj claimed that while assigned to the Santa Flora Police Station on August 30, 2003, he received a report of illegal logging at a forest reserve in Santa Flora.
He said that he went to the site of the illegal activity where he met a group of officers from the Forestry Division of the then Ministry of Agriculture who said they were cutting down the teak and cedar trees for a government minister and a senior official in their ministry.
Several days later Maharaj reportedly returned to the area with a tractor operator to collect the logs, had an argument with the group of forestry officers and left empty-handed.
Weeks later Maharaj was contacted by Phillip and informed that there was evidence to suggest that he was responsible for the illegal activity and had instructed the forestry officers to conduct the task. He was then slapped with two charges for felling the trees without having a permit from the ministry.
The charges were eventually dismissed after a magistrate ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove the case against Maharaj.
While being cross-examined by Maharaj’s lawyer Jagdeo Singh, Phillip, who was the then head of the Fraud Squad, admitted that he was assigned to the case on the request of the permanent secretary of the ministry. Seepersad described this as “quite irregular” as he stated: “The Police Service must always jealously guard its processes from actual or perceived political influence and given the allegations that were made by the claimant of alleged impropriety by political office holders, greater care should have been exercised by officer Phillip.”
Seepersad also stated that Phillip should have investigated Maharaj’s allegations against the forestry officials whose statements led to Maharaj being charged, as there were glaring gaps and deficiencies in their evidence. He also questioned why Phillip had not referred the case to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) before charging Maharaj.
In a brief telephone interview yesterday, Maharaj said he was happy with Seepersad’s judgment but that it and the “injustice” in his case were an embarrassment to the Police Service.
“What happened to me was very alarming. The judge found all kinds of wrong activity in the case. The Police Service should feel ashamed by this,” Maharaj said.
Maharaj was also represented by Kent Samlal.