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Raffique Shah


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1990 enquiry: exercise in futility

By Raffique Shah
July 25, 2010

I do not know how Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her Cabinet arrived at a decision to appoint a Commission of Enquiry into the attempted coup of 1990. I suspect the hype that always surrounds the anniversary date of the Muslimeen assault on the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government may have prompted the PM and her colleagues to attempt to "put this matter to rest for once and for all". It certainly was not part of the People's Partnership manifesto or 120-day action plan.

I can only conclude that the perennial deluge of calls for an enquiry into the events of July 1990 drove the People's Partnership Cabinet to try to bring "closure" to that unfortunate chapter in our recent history. Whether the Enquiry will serve any purpose other than open old wounds, and maybe raise some embarrassing questions for some retired holders of high office, is left to be seen. The PM, making the announcement, raised the possibility of "charges for offences that are not statute-barred". That seems far-fetched, given the Privy Council ruling that set the 114 accused free.

But I am no attorney, so I leave such issues to wiser heads. What I can say is there were two enquiries into the mutiny of 1970, in which I was a lead player. The first was a committee comprising World War II veterans that sat even as we mutineers held Teteron Barracks. The three-man Military Committee was headed by Major Roderick Marcano. Mainly Defence Force personnel, including several mutineers, appeared before them. They sat for two or three days and immediately reported to the then Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams.

I don't know of anyone who has seen their report. Maybe Williams and his Attorney General, Karl Hudson-Phillips, did. But its contents never arose during the preliminary inquiry into charges of treason or at the three courts martial that followed. While we mutineers were in prison, a Commission of Enquiry was named. I don't recall its composition, but I know the late Dr Martin Sampath, a PNM member who later followed Ray Robinson when he resigned from the ruling party, was a member.

No mutineer was given the opportunity to appear before that enquiry, but many senior officers of both the Regiment and Coast Guard did. Again, the report of that Commission appears to have been buried with the rubble of 1970. In 1989, Sampath, who often wrote Op-Ed pieces for the daily newspapers, referred to the Commission and its report in one such column.

Sampath wrote, inter alia, "...if the contents of that report had been made public in a timely manner, no soldier would have been charged with mutiny". I don't know if he was correct, but I have to accept his word since he was an author of the report.

What I can say is that we mutineers, in particular the two leaders, accepted our culpability. But we argued that the then "high command" was equally culpable, since it was they who dragged the Regiment into the sorry state it had reached.

We went on to win our matters at the Court of Appeal, not on any legal technicality, but on solid points of law. In fact, the Privy Council confirmed the Appeal Court's decision. I need to add that knowing what we did had constituted a serious breach of the law, we took responsibility for our actions, accepted our period of imprisonment (27 months) as men, and thereafter never made an issue of it. We all moved on, many making contributions to our country as good citizens.

The events of 1990 cannot be compared with what happened in 1970. The latter came out of a mass movement, even though the leaders of NJAC (Daaga, Kambon and others) were neither privy to, nor part of, the mutiny. Still, as young men fired with notions of freedom and justice, we considered ourselves part of the struggle to liberate our country from the shackles of neo-colonialism.

In 1990, the leaders of the Muslimeen took it upon themselves to precipitate armed action against the NAR government. Scores of people were killed (two or three deaths can be apportioned to the events of 1970—a miracle, given the firepower the mutineers and the Coast Guard controlled). There was widespread arson, looting and other violent actions. While much of the latter was not directed by the leaders of the insurrection, the power vacuum their assault left allowed for mob rule.

There was always speculation that others, among them senior politicians, had prior knowledge of the attempted coup. That could be just rumour. In 1970, it was said that Robinson knew of the mutiny; nothing is further from the truth. So allegations that both Patrick Manning and Basdeo Panday had some knowledge of what was about to take place may well prove to be unfounded.

I should add that with the passage of time, people's memories fade. I know. As I write my account of the mutiny I have encountered some glaring untruths (some published as facts) and gross inconsistencies. The enquiry into 1990 could face similar challenges. Who will determine fact from fiction, lies from truths? There is always a tendency for people to embellish their roles in events like these, to allow fantasy to override reality.

But, if the principal players are comfortable with an enquiry, then bring it on.

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