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Judge orders release of soldiers in fraud probe
The Defence Force has agreed to release two soldiers who have been detained for over three weeks as part of a probe into a $2 million payroll scam.
The organisation made the concession moments before Justice Joan Charles was scheduled to rule on the legality of their detention at the Port-of-Spain High Court yesterday.
While the concession effectively made Charles’ ruling on the case unnecessary, she nonetheless gave her reasons why she felt that the detention was unjustified, nonetheless.
The soldiers’ freedom may be short-lived as the T&T Guardian understands that a parallel investigation being conducted by the Fraud Squad is nearing completion. The soldiers had been confined to the Teteron Barracks, in Chaguaramas after the allegations of overpayment were raised.
In her oral ruling, Charles ruled that the Defence Force was correct in initially detaining the two soldiers — a Lance Corporal and Private — after the financial discrepancy was first discovered on July 27.
“Given the nature of the alleged misconduct, I think it was important that they be detained to ensure that evidence or witnesses are not tampered with,” Charles said as she noted that the Lance Corporal was working as a payroll clerk and had access to the department’s computer network.
However, she ruled that their detainment at the Teteron Barracks should have been no longer than two or three days as to allow the organisation to bring disciplinary proceedings against them.
She also dismissed the Defence Force contention that their detention under ‘open arrest’ (being confined to their base with freedom of movement under supervision for an undefined period), was allowed as they fell under military laws and regulations.
“Even though the soldiers are subject to military law, the issue of their right to liberty remains. It is an entrenched right and must be given effect,” Charles said.
The two soldiers were brought to court dressed in their uniforms on Charles’ request and were allowed to leave on their own. They still can not be identified as they are yet to be charged with any offence.
In her judgment, Charles also rejected the Defence Force claims that lengthy detention was to facilitate their participation in a Board of Inquiry into the incident. She stated that the inquiry did not provide for disciplinary action against the soldiers and that they could have been allowed to leave the base and ordered to return for the subsequent hearings.
Charles also questioned the organisation’s claims that the detainment was also based on a request from the police, who are currently engaged in a parallel investigation.
“The police are well aware of their powers and know that they can not hold a person with proper justification past 48 hours,” Charles said.
The T&T Guardian understands that the soldiers are accused of working with a civilian member of staff to receive inflated payments in their salaries between February and June.
When they were first confronted the officers reportedly admitted to seeing inflated sums in their accounts and withdrew the money without knowing its source.
As part of the ruling, Charles ordered the Defence Force to pay the legal fees of the soldiers in filing the lawsuit.
The soldiers were represented by Mario Merritt and Stephen Wilson. Ravi Rajcoomar and Shivana Nath represented the Defence Force.