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Raffique Shah


Bond that keeps getting stronger

By Raffique Shah

NEITHER the Coast Guard nor the loyalists at the gate could have stopped us if we really wanted to break out of Teteron and get into Port of Spain.

We had sent a party of soldiers across the hills into Diego Martin on Day One, and if the situation had deteriorated, we would have been able to fall back into the hills and conduct guerrilla warfare against any forces that the Government might have chosen to use against us.

Outside of our training in conventional warfare, Rex Lasalle, Mike Bazie and I had done extensive studies in guerilla warfare.

We had studied the strategies and tactics of men who had fine-tuned that aspect of warfare-Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse Tung and General Giap, a Vietnamese whose bedraggled people's armies had routed the French forces, and were well on their way to defeating the might if the US.

We considered ourselves "masters of the bush".

On May 1, 1970, following a "reunion lunch" (the "loyalists" were invited to Teteron by Serrette) in the Officers Mess, Serrette announced that the "authorities" wanted to "question" some of his officers-namely Rex, Mike and me. Space does not permit me to to go into details of how each officer responded to this news (that's another intriguing story).

In the end, we accompanied Serrette into POS, where we were held at the Central Police Station on Wrightson Road for the night. The next day, senior magistrate Gladys Gaffoor came to the station for us to appear before her, maybe the only occasion on which a court hearing was conducted in a police station.

For the first time the charge of treason was read to us, although, what with the archaic English in which it was written, we were not aware that we had been charged with treason. Some 90-odd soldiers would later be arrested and charged, the two main charges being treason and mutiny. The former only reached the preliminary enquiry stage, following which some 40-odd soldiers were committed to stand trial, and others released (but remained charged with mutiny and other offences). The treason charge was later withdrawn by the State.

With respect to the mutiny and other military charges, the Defence Act was hastily amended (in one day) to allow officers from armies in Commonwealth countries to sit in trial over us. among those who formed the first Court Martial (it started sittings in October, 1970, and completed the trial in March, 1971) was Colonel Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma.

Danjuma had taken an active role in the first coup in Nigeria, in which, according to an account in the book The Barrel of a Gun (Ruth First), he had horse-whipped the Head of State before executing him. He had also taken part in the second coup in that country before coming here.

Sitting in judgment over us, too, was Ghanaian Colonel Ignatius Acheampong, who, shortly after passing sentences on the rebel soldiers, returned to Ghana to pull off his own coup. He was in turn overthrown by Lt Jerry Rawlings, who had him executed.

And there was Major Obitre-Gama, a Ugandan, who was recalled to his country in the midst of the trial to be part of the new government-by-coup of the notorious Idi Amin.

The prosecutors chosen were heavyweight: Bruce Procope, Theodore Guerra, Gerald Stewart, Aldric Benjamin and Maureen Thompson. But the defence was even more formidable. There was the "little master", Pope Wharton, Allan Alexander, Desmond Allum, Aeneas Wills, Arthur Lawrence (now Atta Kujufi), Clive Phelps, Clem Razack (now deceased), to name the most prominent, though relatively young, attorneys.

Many of these attorneys represented their clients for little or no fees.

It was clear that we were guilty of mutiny.

How we managed to beat the noose and drew rings around Karl and his prosecuting team is a story that must be told.

Two of the principal law manuals that governed the military at the time were the Manual of Military Law and the Queen's Regulations. We had studied military law at Sandhurst, but only what was necessary to pass our exams.

Now, with jail time on our hands and a court martial to face, we took time to study the laws in those books more closely.

It was in the cell one night, as we read, I came across a section that dealt with the question of "condonation". In effect, it said that once a soldier's commander condoned whatever unlawful act he had committed, he could not be tried or convicted for any offence arising therefrom. It turned out that Serrette, who detested Johnson, had made several derogatory remarks about the latter. He had also said that had he remained in the army, he might have done what we had-namely, committed mutiny.

It was our view that Serrette had condoned our actions.

When our attorneys (Alexander and Allum) were shown that section of the MML, they were stunned.

After getting over the shock of the plea (and finding out exactly what it meant), the court decided to hear it. But their minds had already been made up, and they dismissed it.

The trial proceeded, and some five months later, when they dished out sentences, I happened to land the heaviest-20 years in jail! Rex got 15, Mike seven, and other soldiers lesser sentences.

A huge crowd had gathered outside the Town Hall, and tears, sighs and loud cursing greeted the announcement of the sentences. We were carted back to prison, from whence we were not meant to emerge until, certainly in my case, by 1990!

We appealed (Mike Bazie later withdrew his), and the Appeal Court, comprising Justices Clement Phillips, Aubrey Fraser and Telford Georges, threw out the convictions and sentences mainly on the ground that the condonation plea was not heard in a fair manner.

The State appealed that ruling, but the Privy Council dismissed it without even hearing the defence team.

On July 27, 1972, Rex and I, along with a few of our men who were being held at the Royal Gaol, were driven to freedom and to a tumultuous welcome by hundreds of people who had gathered outside the jail from early that morning. The rest of the men, including those who had not appealed and were serving sentences, were released the following day.

Thirty years later, that bond among us that was first forged in the army, and tightened during those 27 months in prison, still serves to bind us. We have moved on in life, but we never forget each other, or the fact that on April 21, 1970, we put our lives on the line for the people of this country, and for each other.

The ideals we held then about the role that the military should play in a country of this size, as well as our political views on building an egalitarian society, of closing the rich-poor gap in this land of plenty, have not changed. We hold an annual reunion, and up to last Easter weekend we had great fun reminiscing about the events that shook the foundations of this country.

We have, over the years, rebuilt bridges between us and our fellow officers and men who were on the "other" side during those 10 days of tension. There are many who were part of the overall events of 1970 who seem to be ashamed of being linked to them, especially those who have moved up in society.

Not us.

We remain proud of our role in one of the most significant events in the history of this country, the Black Power revolution.


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