By Andre Bagoo Friday, August 9 2013
A MEETING between Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and hunger striker Dr Wayne Kublalsingh ended abruptly yesterday when Persad-Bissessar walked out after ending the session.
The meeting was hosted by the Prime Minister at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s, in response to a request from Kublalsingh to meet with her yet again on the controversial Debe to Mon Desir leg of the billion-dollar Point Fortin highway project.
The meeting started at about 3.20 pm in one Cabinet meeting room on the second floor of the Diplomatic Centre. Members of the media had been invited by the Office of the Prime Minister hours earlier to cover the event and were waiting in a corridor adjoining the Cabinet meeting room. However, at about 4 pm, the doors to the room suddenly opened and a stern-looking Persad-Bissessar walked out of the room speedily. She did not speak. The media were then informed by spokespersons that the photo-opportunity was cancelled. Kublalsingh emerged from the room minutes later and told the media he needed a few minutes to gather his thoughts and deliberate with members of the Highway Re-route Movement who had accompanied him.
The Prime Minister issued a press release at 5.41 pm giving her account of what happened. She said she left the meeting after Kublalsingh insisted on repeating the same question to her over and over. She also stated she had interrupted a meeting of the National Security Council in order to meet Kublalsingh and returned to that meeting after bringing the Kublalsingh encounter “to a close.”
“Following a request made by Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, of the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) by letter dated August 6, 2013, I met with eleven members of the Movement today at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s,” Persad-Bissessar said. She said he asked two questions.
“During the meeting, Dr Wayne Kublalsingh asked two questions:
1) Is the Prime Minister going to abide by the ten (10) recommendations of the (James) Armstrong Committee’s recommendations on the Debe-Mon Desir section of the Point Fortin Highway?
2) Is the Prime Minister going to abide by the decision of the High Court in a constitutional motion filed by the Movement several months ago?”
The Prime Minister noted the matter was still before the court and there was no ruling as yet.
“I pointed out that the matter is before the High Court and I have no intention to compromise the court case,” she said.
According to the Prime Minister’s account, she then appeared to have turned the tables and asked Kublalsingh questions of her own. She asked why Kublalsingh —who has opposed the project on a series of environmental, social and archeological grounds – had not sought an injunction to stop the project.
“I asked Dr Kublalsingh if he sought injunctive relief from the High Court to stop the Debe-Mon Desir section of the Highway,” she said. “When he said he did not do so, I asked why. Dr Kublalsingh said this was not the advice of the Movement’s lawyers whom he named. I pointed out to the members of the Movement that while I have every intention of upholding the law, there was no decision of the court to date.”
Kublalsingh then continued to ask questions, according to the Prime Minister. The meeting deteriorated. “Dr Kublalsingh asked if I had any intention of abiding by the recommendations of the Armstrong Committee,” she said. “I said that was a matter for representatives of Nidco and its Technical advisors.
In the absence of the President of Nidco, Dr Carson Charles (who is out of the country), I said I was not in a position to state what happened to the recommendations. I suggested that Nidco officials meet with Dr Kublalsingh and his members to discuss what had been done with the Armstrong report.”
She continued, “This apparently was not what Dr Kublalsingh wanted to hear and despite repeated questions on the same two issues, I remained resolute that until I receive advice from the technical advisors at Nidco, I would not be in a position to give an affirmative response, nor would I compromise the court matter. I then brought the meeting to a close and resumed my meeting with the National Security Council.”
Speaking with reporters outside the Diplomatic Centre at about 4.15 pm, Kublalsingh gave his account of the meeting. He said the Prime Minister’s answers to all his questions was, “I don’t know.”
Kublalsingh said, “We had two questions for the Prime Minister. We asked, ‘Madam Prime Minister, you commissioned a review of the highway; you agreed to pay for it. The State submitted an enormous amount of documentation and participated fully in the process. Why don’t you abide by the conditions set forth in this scientific, technical report which you are responsible for?”
Kublalsingh said the response was, “She said she did not know. She said she had to consult with Nidco.” The activist said he then asked the Prime Minister, “Why did you not consult with them?” He said he continued his questions.
“The second question we asked was about the constitutionality of the Mon Desir ... We are asking, is this constitutional? That is the question we are asking the court. Are you going to abide by these findings before you start construction? She does not know,” he recounted.
“She then said, ‘Well why don’t you seek an injunction?’ and we spent a few minutes explaining to her that is not a relevant matter. So the Prime Minister has no answer to our questions.”
Several ministers were present in the room including Minister of Works and Infrastructure Dr Suruj Rambachan, Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development Dr Bhoe Tewarie, and Minister in the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure, Stacy Roopnarine.
Kublalsingh, in his account, drew specific attention to Rambachan.
“We said okay Madam Prime Minister, you don’t know. Does Minister Rambachan know when work will start on Debe/Mon Desir? He said he does not know. Do you know if you are going to abide by the conclusions before work starts? He did not know. At this point, the Prime Minister seemed to get upset, stood up to leave.” Kublalsingh, who held a hunger strike outside the Prime Minister’s office for 21 days last year, said his “next move is to be back on the street” and he would return to the Office of the Prime Minister on Monday and would seek to meet Nidco president Carson Charles on Tuesday. Tewarie yesterday said Kublalsingh’s accounts were “not true”.
“The Prime Minister did not give an answer on the matter related to the court but she did question him — and pointedly I might add — on why it is he had not sought an injunction to stop the construction of the highway when it would have been easy to do so and it is Mr Kublalsingh who did not wish to answer or pursue that question.”
Tewarie said the Prime Minister did not walk out on the meeting.
“What happened is that she indicated she had left a National Security meeting which she chaired to be present at the meeting with Dr Kublalsingh and when he kept asking the same questions relating to the court matter which she would not answer the Prime Minister then said it did not make any sense to continue. She said he could continue the discussion with the other ministers present and at this point, Dr Kublalsingh also got up to leave.”
The Minister said his impression was that the Prime Minister suggested a meeting take place between Kublalsingh and Rambachan with technical officials and, in his view, Kublalsingh had agreed.
Press secretary Francis Joseph said the meeting ended when Kublalsingh continued to ask the same questions over and over and after the Prime Minister pointed out that there was no court order in the case: that no injunction has been sought by the Highway Re-Route Movement to stop the highway works.