Has there been a change in the Government’s position on the Sedition Act?
The question arose yesterday after an attorney in the Office of the Attorney General, Solange de Souza, asked National Trade Union Centre of T&T (NATUC) general secretary Michael Annisette to submit on the union’s behalf, draft amendments to the controversial Sedition Act before September 17.
Speaking afterwards, Annisette said he viewed the ministry’s requests for amendments as contradictory in light of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs Fitzgerald Hinds’ views that the old laws will not be thrown out.
“While the AG Office is saying that (to submit our comments), we have a contradiction with what the Prime Minister, Hinds and Stuart Young are saying. So what do you do about it?
“Is it a collective approach by Cabinet because we would have had different statements emanating? So there is a continuous contradiction of statements by the Government. That is how we view it. What the test will be is if Cabinet will have a common voice on this matter. It is left to be seen.”
Annisette pleaded with Rowley to let good sense prevail in the matter.
“Let us sit down and discuss this law like big people,” he said.
The request from the AG’s Office was put forward yesterday when Annisette and a team from NATUC went to the AG’s Port-of-Spain office to hand-deliver a letter to Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi. But the AG is out of the country and De Souza accepted the letter on his behalf.
“In our conversation with senior legal officer Solange De Souza, there was an agreement that we would look at legislation, more particularly this legislation and send our comments for the amendments or the repeal, as the case may be, for the Attorney General to take a look at,” Annisette told the media.
He said NATUC was advised to submit their amended proposals no later than September 17.
The debate over the repeal of the Sedition Act started after NATUC and Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke was arrested and charged under the act last week for statements he made last November.
In the three-page letter, NATUC has raised concerns about the archaic legislation and the charge brought against Duke.
The letter urged the AG to “table for Parliamentary debate at the very minimum, the decriminalisation of the offence of sedition or preferably follow other Commonwealth nations by repealing this legislation altogether.” It noted that the act, as drafted, has the potential to expose all trade union leaders to unwanted and unwarranted criminal prosecution.
Annisette viewed the words uttered by Duke last November as normal rhetoric of the trade union movement.
Joined by comrades of the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union (TIWU), Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) and the PSA, Annisette called on all civil society groups, including the Media Association of T&T, who may view the act as a way to muzzle dissenting voices, to stand up and to give their input on how the legislation can be amended or repealed.
“When I go back to my office I will be liaising with some of my trade union colleagues and obviously, we will talk to some of our attorneys to see how best we can restructure it,” Annisette said.
He explained that three attorneys, among them Douglas Mendes and Nyree Alfonzo, have agreed to work with the trade union movement to challenge the constitutionality of the Sedition Act.
Hinds: I know nothing of this
Contacted for comment on this latest development yesterday, however, Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General Fitzgerald Hinds said he had no knowledge of what Annisette claimed occurred yesterday.
“I know nothing of what you speak, you just told me what they are saying and I just told you and I understand what you said, but I just told you I know nothing of what you speak.”
Asked if attorney De Souza was indeed attached to his office, Hinds said yes. But when asked why De Souza would tell the union body to submit amendments by September 17 if that was not a directive from the AG, he responded, “I know nothing of what you speak.”
On the question of whether there has been any discussion within the Government about repealing the Sedition Act, Hinds again said he knew nothing of this.
No let-up from UNC
Meanwhile, there will be no let-up from the Opposition on the controversial act despite public criticisms from Government quarters.
Yesterday, Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar penned a letter to the Clerk of the House of Representatives indicating her intention to introduce a Private Member’s Bill: The Sedition Repeal Bill, 2019.
Persad-Bissessar said the bill will be introduced pursuant to Standing Order 60 of the House of Representatives. She explained that the purpose of the Sedition Repeal Bill, 2019, is to repeal the Sedition Act, Chap. 11:04. According to Persad-Bissessar, the act, which came into force in April 1920, is inimical to the tenets of a modern constitutional democracy.
She said, “Today, nearly a century after it was enacted, this law has no place in a free and democratic country and therefore, it should be repealed and completely removed off the statute books. Freedom of speech and expression are enshrined and protected rights in our democracy.”
She added, “The party I lead, the United National Congress, will continue to stand for all these rights afforded to all of us under the Constitution.”
Persad-Bissessar also noted that many modern democracies have abolished their sedition laws.
“The Opposition will continue to do our duty to hold the Government accountable; to ask questions and seek to protect all patriotic citizens from running afoul of this archaic law and an ever-increasing oppressive Government,” she said.
Asked about this development Hinds said she was free to do so.
“Kamla Persad-Bissessar is a Parliamentarian in Opposition, where I suspect she will be for a very very long time until the UNC disposes of her and she is free to file any motion, once it qualifies, the speaker will treat with it accordingly.”