Port of Spain, Trinidad, Apr 25, 2006 – Lawyers for former Trinidad Prime Minister Basdeo Panday were unsuccessfully in getting him released from jail on bail. At the same time, Panday’s Parliamentary seat has been declared vacant by the President of the twin-island republic.
Reports from Trinidad this afternoon are that Justice Anthony Camona declined the bail request after a hearing in Chamber due to a lack of evidence as grounds for the appeal. The application was heard at 11 am today and lasted just under half an hour. Mr. Panday was represented by Mr. Desmond Allum, Mr. Fyard Hosein, and Mr Rajiv Persad.
In another ominous blow, President Professor Max Richards declared the office of the Leader of the Opposition vacant.
In a brief statement, President Richards advised that Panday will cease to perform his functions as a member of the House of Representatives.
A new leader of the Opposition is to be appointed but that depends on which member has the confidence of the majority of Opposition Parliamentarians.
After shocks spread across the Caribbean after the unprecedented verdict in Trinidad and Tobago and the Commonwealth Caribbean of the jailing of Panday, who is also leader of the Opposition United Congress Party. He spent his first night not among the hardened criminals at Maximum Security Prison, Golden Grove, but in the infirmary apparently for health and safety reasons, according to Trinidad press reports.
The 73-year old politician, who was first elected to Parliament 30 years ago, was found guilty on three counts of not declaring assets contained in a British bank account as is required under The Integrity in Public Life Act, 2000 (see full-text of Act at http://www.ttparliament.org/bills/acts/2000/a2000-83.pdf). He was found guilty on all three counts and was slapped with the maximum penalty of two years imprisonment with hard labour and TT$20,000 for each count by Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicholls. The sentences will run concurrent and he will serve only two years. In addition, all the money in the London bank account was confiscated.
Panday maintains that the bank account belongs to his wife and he was therefore under no obligation to report it. His lawyers are appealing the sentence and the Chief Magistrate denied bail.
Reaction this morning is mixed.
Prime Minister Patrick Manning expressed sorrow at the turn of events but said that the rule of law must be upheld.
“I would have preferred to forgive the party. I wish it didn’t happen but it has happened. It means that I have to be careful, and any one like me has to be careful because the rule of law is not for some and not for others we have laws for everybody,” the Prime Minister said.
Political leader of the UNC Winston Dookeran call it a national tragedy.
Deputy Chaguanas Mayor Nagessar said, “I was very disappointed. It is very, very sad for Mr Panday to end his final days like this.”
Acting Attorney General Camille Robinson-Regis said in a statement: “The verdict, unprecedented in T&T history and indeed in the history of the Commonwealth Caribbean, has confirmed the supremacy of the rule of law in T&T, for it proves that the law applies to all citizens in equal measure … The fact that the investigations were continued across administrations speaks volumes for the administration of justice in T&T.”
Political leader of the Movement for National Development (MND), Garvin Nicholas, said while he was not surprised at the verdict, the severity of it took him by surprise.
“Given the evidence, I was not surprised by the verdict but I am surprised by the severity of the sentence, given his age and his service as a former prime minister, Opposition Leader and activist,” said Nicholas.
Steve Alvarez, leader of Democratic Party of Trinidad and Tobago, said the law had taken its course.
“As all legal matters, it showed that the separation of powers continues to exist in T&T and it is a positive step,” Alvarez said.
The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper said that Panday’s conviction, sends the unmistakable message to all politicians that crime does not pay and that “justice will take its due course even for those previously thought to be untouchable”, noting that even if the judgment is overturned on appeal that the judgment will “forever tarnish Panday’s contribution as an attorney, trade unionist and politician.” The newspaper lauded the Chief Magistrate as an “impartial arbiter of blind justice”.
The Express Newspaper said it was regrettable that someone who has been so profoundly involved in the social and political development of this country for such a long time now faces the ignominy of a jail term to say nothing of the spectacular collapse of what has been both a colourful and, up to now, successful political career.
“He is not the first and certainly will not be the last politician to pay a penalty for having been seduced by the manifest temptations of the power that goes with high office” the editor wrote.
Across the twin island republic some ordinary Trinidadians rejoiced at the ruling while other wept, with some feeling it was victimisation.
Panday and his wife are also due to face preliminary hearings into corruption charges stemming out of the Piarco Development Project.
Panday and supporters of the UNC have alleged that the two charges were politically motivated.
Political scientists say it’s the end of the road for Panday. He said the ruling was “an important milestone” on the island’s political landscape and sent a clear signal to all politicians that they are not above the law and would therefore have to pay a price for wrongdoing.
His Couva North Parliamentary seat will be declared vacant if the decision is upheld by the Appeals Court.
THE DECISION AT-A-GLANCE
Guilty on all three counts of failing to declare a London bank account to the Integrity Commission for the years 1997, 1998 and 1999, respectively, contrary to Section 27 (1)(b) of the Integrity in Public Life Act.
- Two years’ imprisonment with hard labour on each of the three counts;
- The sentences are to run concurrently;
- A fine of $20,000 on each count;
- He is to forfeit the equivalent of £159,600.35, the total accumulated year-end balances in the account for the three years charged;
- In default of these payments, he will serve a further three years’ imprisonment with hard labour.
Basdeo Panday (born May 25, 1933) was Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1995 to 2001 and has served as Leader of the Opposition from 1976-1977, 1978-1986, 1989-1995 and 2001-2006. He was first elected to Parliament in 1976 as the Member for Couva North, a position he continues to hold. He is the Chairman and former party leader of the Opposition United National Congress.