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Guilty or not guilty?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Last week, it was announced that Wade Charles, Dominic Pitilal, Asim Luqman, Andre Battersby and Leslie Daisley were to be returned home to Trinidad after being in detention in Venezuela since March 19, 2014. 

These men had been the subject of intense diplomatic negotiations that started under the former People’s Partnership administration and those negotiations continued under the current PNM administration.

The announcement of their return last week was greeted with great celebration by their families. Attorney Nafeesa Mohammed was overjoyed at the outcome and proudly proclaimed on the CNC3 7 pm newscast last Sunday that there was only one person to thank for the return of these men and that was Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

However, by Monday there was a completely different story being put out by Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon to the effect that the men had, in fact, been convicted in a Venezuelan court of charges of non-gang related conspiracy and espionage. This was further supported on Tuesday evening by a release from the Office of the Attorney General which stated in part that the men “were subjected to a judicial process in the Courts of Venezuela in accordance with due process. These legal proceedings were recently completed and the individuals were found guilty of certain criminal offences and sentenced.”

This information completely changed the dynamic of what was supposed to be a triumphant release of these five men into a conviction and sentence for serious crimes. Notwithstanding this, Imam Umar Abdullah of the Islamic Front had another view. 

Newsday reported on October 19 that he said he “was reliably informed that these five would be returning home innocent of all charges.” 

According to the report, Abdullah had said he understood that National Security Minister Edmund Dillon said otherwise and he “will address that matter further, once the men return home.”

This has created a situation where the word of the National Security Minister and the Attorney General is not being accepted as the truth. Minister Dillon has said he is reporting what was given to him by the T&T Embassy in Caracas.

The men were sentenced to two years six months and 25 days which is the exact amount of time that the men had been detained in Venezuela. In other words, having been found guilty they were sentenced to the time served in custody.

As in all situations where there are people returning to the country who have been convicted overseas, Minister Dillon said they will be interrogated upon arrival. However, Saddiqua Pitilal, wife of one of the men, made it clear to Minister Dillon that he should “bat in his crease” and not even think about interrogating her husband without his attorney at his side.

This matter is a most peculiar one because one version of events is that the men were freed of all charges and they are being returned home by virtue of that acquittal. Then there is the official government version which states that the men were found guilty of the charges and are returning home as convicted felons. Which one is it?

These families have been waiting for more than two-and-a-half years to see their loved ones and it is absolutely imperative that the outcome be made crystal clear.

Attorney Nafeesa Mohammed was triumphant on Sunday night on the CNC3 news. However, nothing has been heard from her since then. 

As an attorney she will know how serious this matter is and its likely impact on their lives.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, who was singled out by Nafeesa Mohammed for the highest praise in the context of his commitment given earlier this year during the visit of President Maduro to T&T, has not said anything on the matter. The impression that had been conveyed to the national population was that these men were being illegally held in Venezuela and it was necessary for the two governments to conclude an agreement for their release.

Nowhere was it ever communicated publicly that these men were facing charges for non-gang related conspiracy and espionage. 

If that was the case, then the Government of T&T would have been trying to interfere in the judicial process in Venezuela which would have been highly inappropriate. 

Were all of the parties to this matter aware of this reality and that a trial was actually pending? One did not get the impression from the way the matter was reported in the media that there was a judicial matter in the works. The impression created was always that this was an unlawful detention.

In the aftermath of the decision to have the men returned to Trinidad, will they be interrogated as returning felons, or will they be returning as freed men who were unlawfully detained?

This is a serious matter because it goes to the heart of whether or not they were guilty or not guilty. 

One way or the other, the nation will have to be told.


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