Cease and desist
By Janelle De Souza Thursday, August 22 2013
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Police orders: Deputy Commissioner of Police Mervyn Richardson orders OWTU leader Ancel Roget to stop a protest outside the Hall of Justice, Port-of-S...
Police yesterday stopped masked men dressed in black from an unlawful march around the Hall of Justice, Port-of-Spain saying that passers-by feared they were witnessing an attempted coup.
Initially, the group could not be identified as many of the people had their faces covered with black bandanas. It was only when he went through the group, that Deputy Commissioner of Police, Mervyn Richardson, recognised Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) president general, Ancel Roget and pulled him aside to question him.
Richardson would then, leading Roget by the arm, take him to the Central Police Station, corner of St Vincent and Sackville Streets, but the union leader was not arrested and was allowed to leave.
Roget and about 50 members of the Joint Trade Union Movement were engaging in a silent march in protest on the second anniversary of the 2011 State of Emergency, which began on August 21.
The group wore black T-shirts with prints reading, “2011 SoE took away people’s rights” and “We will not forget August 21, 2011” and members wore black bandanas over their mouths, carrying plain black flags.
Last year, the Movement held a similar protest, at the Hall of Justice and outside the Parliament at the International Waterfront Centre on Wrightson Road, but on that occasion the word “censored” was printed across the bandanas they wore over their mouths.
However, with the group marching as police top brass were having a meeting at the Ministry of National Security, on Abercromby Street, near the Hall of Justice, following an anti-crime exercise in Beetham Gardens, and a week after six murders in East Port-of-Spain, their presence outside the seat of the Judiciary alarmed the senior officers.
In a city already tense over the crime spike, Richardson said people were fearful the unidentified group may have been engaging in an attempted coup.
“The Police Commissioner and I were in a meeting at National Security when I got word that there were people outside the Hall of Justice and they appeared to be in a state where people were fearful that another 1990 insurrection was about to take place,” Richardson told reporters during a news conference at the Police Administration Building on Sackville Street.
Richardson left the meeting and went across to the protest, where he recognised Roget and told him to move the group and to take the bandanas off their faces as wearing them was in breach of Section 19 of the Public Festivals Act which prohibits persons from blocking their faces with the exception of Carnival.
“I asked Mr Roget to desist and resist from that because clearly he was breaking the law. No one knew who it was, their faces were all covered, they looked in a particular way and I formed an opinion and in that respect, I asked him to remove himself and to accompany me to the Police Headquarters, where we had a discussion,” Richardson said.
However, during the protest Roget insisted the group was participating in a non-disruptive and silent demonstration, and they were not blocking any passageway and he asked Richardson which law was being broken by the group.
“We asked only that he quote the section of the law that says that because we want to be educated as citizens of this country as to what is the law regarding that,” Roget told reporters outside the Hall of Justice.
At that time Richardson left and returned with armed police officers. He approached Roget and said, “I’m making two requests of you. One, your members that have their faces blocked present a security risk. I am asking you so that they would undo that. And the second thing I’m asking you is to desist from marching around here. You are impeding the free passageway of the court and you are disturbing the court.”
Roget seemed incredulous that the silent protesters were disturbing the court and repeatedly asked Richardson what law they had broken. Richardson asked Roget several times to move but Roget insisted he did not understand how they were disturbing the court or blocking the passageway.
Richardson then led the union leader away to the police headquarters.
Seeing their leader surrounded and being escorted by Richardson, five armed police officers and two senior officers, the protesters converged requesting to know what was happening. They asked if Roget was going to be arrested but no one responded and so they followed them to Sackville Street singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
Outside the police headquarters, OWTU communications officer Ozzie Warwick told Assistant Commissioner of Police Wayne Dick, the group held the same protest with the same bandanas, last year, and the police who were present said nothing to them then.
By this time, attorney Vashist Maharaj arrived and told Dick the bandanas were not meant to conceal the identities of the protesters or to carry out a crime but was part of the protest denoting the infringement of freedom of speech.
Later at the press briefing, Richardson said when Roget’s attorneys arrived at the police headquarters he said the protesters could not return to the Hall of Justice and they instead went to Woodford Square.
Also at the press briefing, Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams said the Summary Offences Act did not allow persons to engage in public meetings or marches without the permission of the Commissioner of Police. He noted that permission would be given as long as the event could be effectively policed.
“We haven’t been refusing anybody permission once we could effectively police an event... Yet people continue to complain about lawlessness but some of the very said people who complain about lawlessness are engaging in lawlessness,” Williams said.
However, after the group’s move to Woodford Square, their lawyer insisted the members were exercising their constitutional right to protest in a peaceful manner.
Maharaj claimed Richardson said at the meeting at police headquarters that, “Mr Roget came voluntarily and forced himself into the police station and therefore was keeping him, in spite of the fact that he had warned Mr Roget that he is free to leave the station whenever he wishes. Mr Roget did not exercise that right. I then informed him that Mr Roget is now exercising that right and that is when Mr Roget left.”
At Woodford Square, Roget did not wish to focus on his encounter and instead spoke on the reason for the silent protest, which was to remind the population that “democracy in the country is under serious threat” and that the Government took away their rights by declaring the SoE.
Referring to the spate of murders in East Port-of-Spain, Roget insisted, “If it is they were talking about a situation that arose two years ago that gave rise to the SoE, well then we can have a SoE any time now given what has happened. They have not created any dent on crime and criminal activity. They have absolutely no clue.”