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The Case Against Gypsy & Chaitan

Panday’s law comes back to haunt him
Judge will have difficult choice

December 17, 2000
By Kim Johnson

THE 1976 Citizenship Act was clear: “A citizen of Trinidad and Tobago shall cease to be such a citizen if he acquires the citizenship of another country by voluntary act other than marriage.”

The reality was more hazy, however. Many Trinidadians who had become citizens of other countries kept their T&T passports and citizenship, and complained.

The politicians dilly dallied. One High Commissioner to Canada expressed a fear of wealthy foreign-based Trinis buying up the country.

When asked in Brooklyn in 1984 the Foreign Affairs Minister under the George Chambers government, Basil Ince, gave the time-honoured reply: “The Government of Trinidad and Tobago is studying the matter.”

By then every other Caricom country allowed dual citizenship, and Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday refused to mince words.

“I see no reason why Trinidadians living overseas and who have assumed the citizenship of the country in which they now live, for all kinds of practical reasons, should not be given the opportunity to hold dual nationality,” he told Tony Best in New York.

Thus it became a promise in the 1986 NAR manifesto.

After the NAR won the elections and the possibility of Trinidadians enjoying dual citizenship became real, former PNM minister Cuthbert Joseph warned against it.

“It is possible for Trinidad and Tobago nationals residing abroad with a rate of exchange in their favour to dominate the local market in real estate and stocks and shares to the extent of distorting values for these things home. This can cause unfair and considerable hardship to citizens residing permanently at home,” he said.

The Dual Citizenship Act, introduced by Panday, was passed in 1988, allowing citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to also be naturalised citizens of other countries. The Constitution, however, still excludes from Parliament dual citizens.

Last month Panday told reporters that as Foreign Affairs Minister in the NAR, he had introduced dual citizenship following requests by Trinidad and Tobago citizens who had been living in the USA and the United Kingdom. They wanted to retain citizenship of Trinidad and Tobago, but had to renounce that when they became citizens of those countries.

“So we introduced a law to allow them to get back their Trinidad and Tobago citizenship, even though they were citizens of the USA or the United Kingdom,” Panday said.

But this is the first time something like this has happened.

A warning had come, however, from Independent Senator John Spence who last September, in speaking on yet another bill to amend the Citizenship Act, pointed out that “persons who had citizenship of another country which they acquired voluntarily, not involuntarily, would not be able to be members of the House of Representatives or members of the Senate”.

Now that the issue can determine the outcome of last week’s general election, supporters of UNC representatives Winston “Gypsy” Peters and William Chaitan have criticised the anomaly in the Constitution which does not allow dual citizens to sit in Parliament.

Others, however, argue that it is quite acceptable that persons who have sworn allegiance to another country should be excluded from holding political power.The facts are absolutely clear. Both Winston “Gypsy” Peters and William Chaitan falsified their nomination forms.

The Representation of the People Act provides a statutory declaration which must be signed by every nominated candidate. The third declaration is: “I am not, by virtue of my own act, under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power or state.”

Both men signed the forms, Peters being a citizen of the USA, and Chaitan a citizen of Canada. So what?

On the form the signatory also acknowledges: “I make this declaration conscientiously believing the same to be true and according to the Statutory Declarations Act (Ch. 7:04), and I am aware that if there is any statement in this declaration which is false in fact... I am liable to fine and imprisonment.”

UNC supporters are convinced that Gypsy and Chaitan didn’t deliberately falsify their nomination forms. They didn’t realise what they had signed because it wasn’t important. In other words, seeking to become a member of the House of Representatives is an act one does unthinkingly.

Maybe people do sign declarations (despite a possible jail term for misrepresentations) without reading them. It doesn’t matter. No one can be allowed to simply disavow a document they have signed on grounds that they hadn’t read it, or didn’t take it seriously, or didn’t think it really mattered. If that was tolerated then every contract, every cheque, every promissory note could be avoided.

The form is presumably meant to enforce Section 48 of the Constitution which prohibits someone from being elected to the House of Representatives who “is a citizen of a country other than Trinidad and Tobago having become such a citizen voluntarily, or is under a declaration of allegiance to such a country.”

Subsequent to being nominated but before votes were cast, Gypsy claimed to have renounced his US citizenship. Chaitan, apparently, remains a Canadian citizen.

In both cases naturalisation requires sworn public allegiance to the US or Canada as the case may be. The US goes further, though, and requires the applicant to renounce all allegiance and fidelity to his previous country of citizenship.

Consequently, when the PNM challenges the election of Gypsy and Chaitan on Tuesday, and the matter goes to the High Court, the judge will have to decide two issues. (1) Does the Constitution bar them from being elected? (2) Did their misrepresentation of the nomination forms render them ineligible to contest the elections?

Law School lecturer Dana Sitahal argues that the Constitutional exclusion against naturalised citizens of other countries, being written when dual citizenship was not allowed, therefore only means that you must be Trinidadian.

Maybe but not likely. It’s redundant and unnecessary for Section 48 to require a candidate to be a citizen of T&T, because the previous section already stipulates that quite explicitly.

The second challenge that Gypsy and Chaitan voided their nomination forms by misrepresenting them, is more persuasive. Indeed, that point seems difficult to seriously argue against.

In which case the judge has one of two choices. He can disqualify Gypsy and Chaitan and declare the PNM candidates the winners. Or he can declare the election void and precipitate a by-election.

By strict logic the first is preferable, and the seat ought to go to the PNM candidates, just as the second placed in a race gets the prize if the first place runner is disqualified. But more than strict logic is at stake, and the judge might take into account that (1) a majority of the electorate in those two constituencies chose to be represented by Gypsy and Chaitan; and (2) a majority of the electorate voted for the UNC.

A judge might be willing to frustrate the wishes of a majority in one or two constituencies, just as Rupert Griffith and Vincent Lasse’s floor crossing frustrated the Arima and La Brea constituents. However, the same judge would probably balk at ignoring the national majority who chose the UNC. That is what would happen if those two seats were given to the PNM, and their total increased to 18 seats, and the UNC lead reduced to 17.

If Nathaniel Moore, who won Tobago East seat for the NAR sides with the UNC, parliament would be evenly split 18-18. In which case a general election would have to be called again.

If, on the other hand, the High Court precipitates by-elections in Ortoire/Mayaro and Pointe-a-Pierre, until they are completed the UNC has 17 seats in the house, and the PNM 16. Again the one NAR seat will make it even Stevens. Then what?

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