A peaceful protest by political groups and unions against the Government's property tax turned violently ugly outside the Red House yesterday when police arrested Fitun leader David Abdulah and rained blows on four Oilfield Workers' Trade Union members. The situation erupted on Knox Street, Port-of-Spain, before reporters who looked on in disbelief as the sound of body blows from batons thudded off OWTU members who tried to follow Abdulah when he was dragged away by police. The protesters had gathered at 1.40 pm on the Knox Street pavement outside the Red House's northern side to protest Government's property tax. They began chanting slogans as Finance Minister Karen Tesheira piloted the tax bill inside the Red House during yesterday's Lower House sitting.
The group included Abdulah, Oilfield Workers' Trade Union president Ancel Roget and his members, COP deputy leader Prakash Ramadhar, COP's Stephen Kangal and other COP members, NAR's Lennox Sankersingh, Steven Theodore of the NGOs network, One Accord Group Lincoln Myers–in a wheelchair–attorney Garvin Nicholas, businessman Gregory Fernandes, All Trinidad General Workers Union president Rudy Indarsingh and UNC MP Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj who marched briefly before entering Parliament. Hoisting placards protesting the property tax, the group completed several laps around the pavement without interference up to 2 pm. However, police stationed at the Parliament began emerging then. The group's chants then changed from No More Taxes, No more Patrick (Manning) and No More Karen (Tesheira) to No More PNM, No More Thiefing and No More Calder Hart. The Parliament's marshal Raymond Barras and a police officer then spoke with OWTU's Roget.
Roget and protesters were asked to keep the noise level down because the chants were allegedly disturbing the debate. He said the group would try to have the demonstration in a way that would not disturb the peace. But, he noted that the issue was an emotional one. He said the groups had written House Speaker Barendra Sinanan on the issue. Both Roget and Abdulah said the group was not breaking the law since they had no noisy Instruments or musical accompaniment. The protesters continued their demonstration. But, 20 minutes later–with a growing heavily-armed Riot Police presence–officers returned to ask Roget and Abdulah to "tone it down." Police then began moving in on the group preventing them from completing their "lap" on the pavement and herding protesters eastward–away from the Red House.
One policeman attempted to lift Lincoln Myers' wheelchair to remove him and another roughly grabbed the hand of Myers' companion–who was wheeling him–in a bid to halt them. "This is madness! But I will not surrender!" Myers shouted, before a police officer ordered a Guardian reporter away from his side. Abdulah attempted to reinforce the group's position with the police who surrounded him. However, Abdulah was dragged away by police to a waiting squad car PCJ 9138. In the melee, OWTU members attempted to follow police to rescue Abdulah, but clashed with baton-wielding officers who hit them so fiercely the thud of blows could be heard by journalists present.
Beaten by police were OWTU's Hugh Springer, research officer Nikki Johnson, Penal branch official S Sahadeo and Ossie Warwick. Springer, who said he was duty-bound to protect Abdulah his colleague, was hit about the face and arms and sustained a bleeding cut to his left arm. Sahadeo also sported a red welt. Johnson was hit in the chest by a bespectacled officer.
After his arres, Abdulah was detained at Central Police Station where he was charged with "obstructing the free passageway" and detained for three hours before being allowed $500 bail. Abdulah will appear in the Port-of-Spain Magistrates' Court on Monday to answer the charge. After his release, Abdulah said the citizens have a legal right to peaceful picketing. "We won't concede that right...but Government will pay a political price if they insist on trying to pass this tax and we hold by that," he said. "This tax must be withdrawn. "We've also given Government until December 31 to deal with other demands. If not, we continue in a democratic peaceful way to exercise our right to protest and struggle," he added. As Abdulah was hauled away, COP's Ramadhar said: "The violence has been invoked by the police. People must protect themselves now from force. This Government's dictatorship has now turned into violence.
"This will further strengthen the resolve of those who are interested in T&T's future because we saw physical evidence today of the dictatorship in T&T," he said. Attorney Garvin Nicholas said he was assaulted by officers when he attempted to find out why Abdulah was arrested. OWTU's Roget accused the Government of beating citizens into submission. UNC MP Roodal Moonilal who left debate and joined protesters. Moonilal said: "This is a frightful expression of the dictatorship we live under and the will of the State to suppress peoples' views." Several UNC?MP's also joined the march.