Questions are being raised about the millions spent on the Justice Protection Programme and whether it really works to protect whistleblowers and witnesses.
The Justice Protection Programme was formalised in 2003 to provide protection for state witnesses giving testimony in court matters that may put their lives in danger.
It was regulated and updated by the Justice Protection Act 2000, and the programme is supposed to provide protection, new identities, new homes, meet living expenses and provide financial assistance for participants.
According to the act, the State may provide protection for a witness of murder, sedition, any money laundering offences, offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act and any sexual offence, among others. It has been proven necessary to take these extreme measures to protect those who can bring down criminal empires—one example was the case of Special Reserve Police (SRP) Clint Huggins.
In 1994, Huggins gave the State the testimony it needed to convict and execute Nankissoon Boodram (Dole Chadee) and eight of his henchmen in the 90s. Drug lord and crime boss Chadee had previously walked free on several murder charges because the state witnesses had been murdered.
$500 m in five years
Information on the programme, its costs and the current number of participants are unknown as the TTPS have declined to comment, citing safety issues.
Though the National Security Minister Stuart Young also refused to respond to questions and calls, the Sunday Guardian learned that from the period 2010 to 2015, an average of $100 million was being spent annually on the programme—a total of $500 million for the five years—and its close to 200 participants.
In 2013, the then justice minister Herbert Volney said there were 196 people in the programme, 83 of them were state witnesses while the other 113 were family members of those witnesses.
Speaking during a Joint Select Committee (JSC) meeting on National Security on January 10, 2018, former justice minister Prakash Ramadhar said there were witnesses who had been in the programme for over ten years.
"It may surprise many to have learnt that in the Witness Protection Programme there are persons who were given the benefit of witness protection and they have been in that system for more than 11 and 12 years,” Ramadhar said then.
When contacted last week, Ramadhar said while the programme fell under his jurisdiction, he had made recommendations to have cases fast-tracked to ease the burden on the witnesses and the State.
"What we had done was meet and speak to the Chief Justice and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to try to fast track those cases that would have involved people under protection because we had so many people that needed to be kept in protective custody,” Ramadhar said.
He said the programme at that time was "useful but not efficient". Asked about the cost of the programme, Ramadhar said he estimated the cost would have run into “tens of millions of dollars".
"All the upkeep was borne by the State, in some cases it meant moving entire families abroad, paying for accommodations, meals, everything they would have needed."
Responding to Ramadhar during that JSC, Overand Padmore, a former national security minister had said to get a handle on crime the TTPS needs to establish more technology-related evidence and rely less on the "human-witnessed" element.
"And really, to get a handle on crime we need to be able to establish more and more technology-related evidence and less and less human-witnessed element. Nobody is going to willingly come forward to serve as a witness especially in these crimes of violence, when (a) the proceedings take as long as they do; and (b) you become a target for the accused. So that we have that problem to deal with," Padmore said. "It is understandable why people do not wish to come forward as witnesses. They just do not feel secure and these things can take years and years before they come to a resolution. Imagine, I have decided I am giving evidence in a murder case and the event might have been committed in 2001, the man arrested in 2002, and 2018 and the matter is still not yet resolved. What happens to my life as a potential witness? I mean, it is—that is a critical part of the problem."
When the Justice Ministry was dissolved in 2015, the programme was moved to the National Security Ministry.
But in a Parliament report on the ministry’s expenditure, divisions and projects for 2018/2019, the Justice Protection Programme was not mentioned once.
It was also not mentioned in a similar report on the TTPS for 2018/2019.
Griffith: Nothing needs to be revamped, people need to be responsible
In an interview with the Sunday Guardian, Police Commissioner Gary Griffith insisted the programme is efficient and dismissed claims that participants are put at risk while in the State’s care.
"T&T is one of the few countries in the world where the witness protection programme has a 100 per cent record of no one being hurt or killed in the programme," Griffith said. "So in contrast to what many people perceive, our witness protection programme has been proven to be almost foolproof when it comes to harm being taken out on any person who has been part of the programme."
Griffith said the State can only guarantee a witness' safety if they adhere to the rules of the programme and fulfil their side of the obligation. Griffith directed questions about the number of participants in the programme to his Corporate Communications department.
"Obviously for the programme to be successful, many individuals must adhere to the requirements—if persons want to continue to use their phones, if persons want to invite other persons to visit the safe house, if persons want to walk out of the programme and walk back in, they are not only putting their own lives at risk but the lives of the police officers who are there to support them," Griffith said.
"There is nothing that needs to be revamped or restructured, people need to adhere to their obligations and be responsible if they want to be part of the programme."
However, state witnesses have complained that they live in trauma and fear since their lives are constantly at risk.
When GML contacted head of the department Nadine Hackett, she said she was told that information cannot be shared with the public or the media by the person who is in charge of the programme.
Frustrations of a state witness: 'I live in constant fear'
Just a week ago, state witness Jarvis Mark reached out to Guardian Media in a fit of desperation, saying his life is at constant risk in the programme.
Mark said that his testimony against a police officer who allegedly rented out his service firearm to criminals in 2009 has changed his life for the worst. Mark said his frustration with the programme has left him contemplating ending his own life.
During an interview at the Guardian Building on St Vincent Street, Port of Spain, 35-year-old Mark said after a brief stint in the programme in 2009, he rejoined it three years ago when another attempt was made on his life at his home.
"About three years ago, a gunman came back for me at my home and that is how I rejoined the programme. I didn’t have any other choice but to rejoin it and since that it’s just torment from these officers," he said. "I don’t know what to do, I am just really frustrated with this programme. I reach to the level of frustration where I am thinking about taking my own life because if I go home, I am a dead man. Sad to say, but if I go in my own house, I’m a dead man."
Mark said he has been unable to visit his four children for months and is left on his own when he attends court in San Fernando in an unrelated matter.
"Firstly, I can’t get to see my kids at all, they know that the area where the children live are threat areas for me but they are not taking me to see them. San Fernando is a threat area as well for me. I have an ongoing court matter, when I go to the court the judge is aware, she was confused about why they are protecting me for one matter but not for another. The Director of Public Prosecutions’ office is aware, they tried to reach out to the programme for them to bring me to and from court and the programme told them no."
Shuffled from one hotspot to the next
He said he has been shuffled around from one "hotspot" to another for the last three years and is left to fend for himself with no supervision or protection from the programme. He is given a monthly allowance of $2,600 while the State pays for his accommodation.
Two Fridays ago, he spent the night in wide-eyed terror when he heard gunshots outside his apartment. He said although he reported the gunshots, no one checked on him or even returned his call.
"Every single location they put me, it is just hotspot areas. Last Friday a guy was killed right outside the building that they had me, I called the office and imagine I called and told them I heard bullets firing outside and hitting the house and they never called me back.
"I couldn’t sleep that night and came to find out the next morning that someone was murdered right in front. All the areas are hotspot areas, they are putting me in places and I am saying to myself like they are trying to set me up or something like that because I can’t see the reason for them putting me, as a state witness, in these hotspot areas."
He said when he was moved to his current location, he was simply dropped off by several officers and was told nothing about the place where he would be staying.
"Nobody comes to check on me, the only time I see them is the one day in the month when they are coming to drop that allowance and that is it. I will call them and tell them things that are happening at the location—right now I am experiencing some things with the landlord at the location, she is just doing stuff, and I am telling myself that maybe it is the programme telling her to do these things to frustrate me so I will leave because the programme itself like it's trying to frustrate me into leaving."
3 years later, no paperwork
What frightens him the most is the fact that he is yet to be given a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that state witnesses sign when entering the Justice Protection Programme.
"I am in the programme over three years now and I have not signed any document that state I am a state witness and they are putting me in all these hotspot areas. If they come and kill me now, the programme could say I was never a witness because there are no documents to say otherwise."
He is now questioning whether other state witnesses who get killed were also in a similar situation to him.
"Sometimes when I hear state witnesses get killed I start to study if this person was in the same situation as me because nobody don’t know if the person is a witness or not, because this programme is a secret to us because we don’t know nothing about the programme, nothing about our rights. They just have us from apartment to apartment, just take what you get and you can’t say anything."
His frustration and fear have reached a boiling point and Mark said he was tired of fighting to stay alive.
"I have reached a point now where I am reaching out to the media, I have reached out to senior members in Parliament and I am still going through the same drama…I reached a point now where if I dead, so be it, I just real tired."
The Clint Huggins case
Although he was a Special Reserve Police (SRP) officerClint Huggins had been part of a Chadee hit squad sent to wipe out a Williamsville family on January 10, 1994. He was believed to be one of many in the TTPS who worked directly for Chadee.
Four months later, he would give information to investigators that triggered the fall of Chadee’s empire, ending with his hanging death in 1999.
An attempt on Huggins’ life was made while he was under the State’s protection in 1995 but after a public ruse that the assassination was successful, police were able to arrest three people who collected the $1 million bounty Chadee had put on Huggins' head.
But Huggins' own taste for freedom led him to his death when he left his safe house on February 20, 1996. His body was found later that day, shot, stabbed, burnt, and hanging out of a car on the Uriah Butler Highway. Despite his gruesome end, Huggins' testimony was used by the State to convict and later sentence Chadee and his gang to death by hanging.