Commentary: The Anti-Gang Bill 2017: Progressing or regressing?

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Varsha Sankar is a Trinbagonian mathematician, statistician, research scholar, educator, writer, poet, social activist, humanitarian, a PhD student specializing in statistics with concentration in bioinformatics and a columnist for the Sunshine newspaper covering politics and finance. Her other interests include Caribbean integration, cricket and globetrotting

By Varsha Sankar

With our country’s murder toll galloping towards the horrific 500 and the month of December beginning with the bloodiest five days in our country’s history, the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago would have graciously welcomed any attempt by government and the opposition to stabilise and take control of the rampant crime spree that now engulfs our communities and our country. The government’s proposed solution was the hurried introduction of the Anti Gang Bill 2017.

This particular piece of legislation was a part of our jurisprudential landscape during the period August 2011 until it lapsed in August 2016. In its original incarnation this piece of legislation was introduced by the Peoples Partnership government and passed with the support of the then PNM opposition led by now Prime Minister Dr Rowley.

At Present

Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, in piloting the Bill on December 1, 2017, stated that this particular piece of legislation was primarily designed to give the population a sense of “enhanced” protection from the criminal element and provide the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service with the legislative artillery to fight gangs and members of gangs involved in criminal activity.

The purpose of the Bill is stated to be “for the suppression of associations created for unlawful or criminal purposes”. It is also seeks to make it an offence, inter alia, to:

• Be a member of a gang;
• Be in possession of a bullet-proof vest;
• Participate in, or contribute to, the activities of a gang;
• Support or invite support for a gang; or
• Harbour or conceal gang members or recruit persons to a gang.

The Bill as presented by the attorney general required a Parliamentary special majority having regard to its express infringements of the fundamental rights guarantees under section 4 and 5 of the constitution.

Despite increased criminal gang activity and general escalating crime, the Anti-Gang Bill 2017 was defeated in Parliament two weeks ago with 21 government MPs voting in favour and 12 opposition MPs voting against and with one abstention, the Member of Parliament for St Augustine.

This triggered the usual ‘blame game” across the Parliamentary floor, citing “lack of patriotism” from the government side that was met with the opposition cry that the Bill was “bad law”.

Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar categorically stated that this particular piece of legislation would not have made any significant difference in the fight against crime had it been passed and implemented. Ironically the figures that were presented by the government seemed to support this proposition by the leader of the opposition.

While she may be realistically accurate in her statement, to progress as a nation and wage a war against crime and the criminal element, we must look at crime from a holistic point of view.

Fundamental Differences

The opposition members claim that this current Bill is essentially “bad law”; a term that has become synonymous with our current professional amateur attorney general.

There exist several fundamental differences between the legislation that was passed and remained in force between 2011 and 2016 and the present Bill piloted by the attorney general. These include:

• The removal of Section 15 – the Sunset Clause. This clause limited the life of the Act to five years from its date of commencement. Why was the Sunset Clause essential? It served the primary purpose of allowing lawmakers to add, cut and tweak the Act based on any loopholes that may have evaded law enforcement for the rightful prosecution of known gang members or individuals involved in any gang-related activity. Legislatively a sunset clause is inserted in legislation to allow the Parliament to review the success or failure of a particular piece of legislation and to have an opportunity o determine whether the public interest requires the continuation in force of the particular piece of legislation.

• The addition of three offences –
a) Offences under the Terrorism Act
b) Offences under the Proceeds of Crime Act
c) Offences under the Sedition Act

It is not surprising that Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi and his legislative team would have included these three offences within the Anti-Gang Bill 2017. These offences have absolutely nothing to do with the prosecution of gang members and/or their affiliates, and, everything to do with the mastermind plans of this present government, which harbours intentions to target and silence individuals or groups who openly and publicly oppose their exploitation and betrayal of the citizenry of Trinidad and Tobago.

Anti-Gang Bill Has Failed

During the five year period when this legislation was enforced, the country experienced a state of emergency, when hundreds of suspected gang members were arrested. Ironically it was the provisions of the said Anti Gang Act that were responsible for the director of public prosecutions discontinuing the prosecutions of most of the persons who were charged during this time under the Act. The view of many legal luminaries was that the Bill was flawed from its very inception.

According to a Guardian article published on November 7, 2011, former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj stated with reference to the Anti-Gang Act, that “the definition is circular and that is the root of the matter because if gang and gang-related activities cannot be properly defined in criminal law that is the end of the matter”.

Throughout the active life of the Anti-Gang Act, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard made ten recommendations for its successful implementation and functional operations. These are outlined below:

1. Proper preparation by law enforcement authorities of cases;
2. Co-operation rather than competition between law enforcement authorities;
3. Proper and current police documentation of gang affiliation and activity;
4. The development of gang data bases;
5. The employment of informants and the development of an informant policy;
6. A close study of gang dynamics and group criminal behaviour;
7. A proper appreciation of accessorial liability as it relates to gangs;
8. The development of a gang unit;
9. Effective surveillance strategies; and
10. The employment of gang experts who are thoroughly conversant with gang dynamics in Trinidad and Tobago.

Other problems that form an integral part of the Anti-Gang Bill that have not been addressed to date are the enhancement and proper resourcing of the witness protection programme to safeguard state witness, and, the failure to address the issue of misbehaviour of police officials and the rampant issues of corruption within the TTPS.

Even though billions of dollars have been previously invested into the ministry of national security, this Bill or any other that may be introduced into the Parliamentary chambers for debate, will continuously result in failure unless the core of crime and the criminal element within the police service is permanently arrested.

In summary, the current PNM-led government has yet again failed to introduce “good law” that can be supported by ALL. At a crucial time of national vulnerability, the magnitude of the dilemma that faces Trinidad and Tobago continues to grow beyond unimaginable chaotic proportions. But I suppose that the proverbial saying is true — the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago will never get justice in a land where criminals make all the rules.

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