PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago: Radical Muslim leader Yasin Abu Bakr’s remarks implicating Prime Minister Patrick Manning of corruption has sparked an investigation and divided the nation’s legal community.
Bakr, who was freed of charges related to a failed coup attempt in 1990, is currently facing a charge of promoting a terrorist act, sedition and four other offences arising from comments he made during a sermon in 2005.
In a 26-page affidavit, Bakr, the leader of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen group, alleges that he and Manning reached an agreement under which the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) would grant favours to the Muslim group in exchange for helping to secure votes for the party in the 2002 general election.
Bakr said the deal with Manning was reached in the presence of other PNM officials, including current National Security Minister, Martin Joseph.
The Court of Appeal and the London-based Privy Council, the country’s highest court, have both termed the affidavit “scandalous and irrelevant” and ordered it to be removed from the record.
However, High Court Judge Rajendra Narine has directed the police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) to probe Bakr’s accusations based on the “extremely serious nature of the allegations”.
Justice Narine said that if the claims were true, “they strike at the heart of our democratic system of government”, recalling that after the 2002 election, several complaints were made in the media that voters in some marginal constituencies were unable to cast their ballots due to intimidation on the part of the Muslim group.
“The court is confident that the relevant authorities will carry out their constitutional duties without fear or favour. In recent times, there have been investigations and prosecutions of persons in high office. The guiding principle is that no one is above the law, regardless of his position,” said Narine.
An enraged Attorney General John Jeremie wrote Chief Justice Ivor Archie and told Parliament that while the government is respectful of the rule of law and the doctrine of the separation of powers, Narine had overstepped his authority.
“This is the very same affidavit which the Court of Appeal held was scandalous and irrelevant and ordered it should be removed from the record. How then could the judge consider it proper to include this affidavit and furthermore to send it to third parties? In this country, even the words of an insurrectionist can engage the attention of the police,” said Jeremie, describing the claims by Bakr as concocted and coming from a man with no credibility.
The issue has divided the nation’s legal community.
Expressing support for Narine, former attorney general Kamla Persad Bissessar said: “These are serious allegations that in the public interest ought to be investigated, ought to be clarified.”
However, former Court of Appeal judge Jean Permanand said Narine was wrong to order the probe since, legally, the affidavit does not exist since it was struck out by both the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council.
“This is an order which the judge should have followed because there was no appeal on that (striking the affidavit from the record), there was no question on that order that it be removed,” said Permanand, who is a member of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission (JLSC) and the Law Reform Commission.
In a statement released last weekend, the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago described the criticism of Narine by the attorney general as “unprecedented”.
“Case law establishes that a filed document may be used even after an order removing the document from the file has been made,” the group said, citing a 1980 legal case.
Bakr’s attorney, Wayne Sturge, wants the High Court to issue a directive restraining the attorney general from making further comments about his client due to potential pretrial prejudice.
Bakr is awaiting an appeal challenging the constitutionality of the Terrorism Act governing some of the charges against him.