Trinidad backs away from dirty bill

Authorities in Trinidad Wednesday summoned parliament to an emergency session to immediately repeal a highly controversial piece of legislation empowering the courts to dismiss a case if the judiciary fails to start or complete hearings after 10 years, in a move that was widely interpreted to benefit several high-profile financiers of the government on trial for a fraud scandal involving alleged corruption at the island’s main international airport.

Facing islandwide criticism even from its diehard supporters: the opposition, the bar association and local media, the administration of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar held an emergency session of cabinet in Port of Spain on Tuesday, a day after the furor broke out over the Indictable Proceedings Act that made it easy for businessmen Ishwar Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson to escape possible jail time in Trinidad. The two have already asked the courts to dismiss their case.

The two and several other former United National Congress (UNC) ministers and businessmen currently face protracted charges for alleged bid-rigging in relation to the construction of the new Piarco Airport across the runway from the old terminal, back when the UNC was in office as a single party in the mid ‘90s.

Officials made no secret of the fact that government was moving at breakneck speed to have the house of representatives and the senate meet hours after each other to repeal the act, which critics say was enacted like a “thief in the night” while the twin-island republic with Tobago was celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.

The speed has much to do with a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad on Tuesday criticizing the bill and saying that the two financiers are still wanted in the U.S. on money laundering and corruption-related charges, forcing government into a rather embarrassing defeat as even the island’s chief state prosecutor had attacked the bill saying he was “gravely concerned” at the move by parliament and cabinet.

“The United States continues to seek their extradition despite the ruling last year by the Trinidad and Tobago High Court. They remain under indictment in the United States. “It would be highly disappointing if, after years of investigation, their case was not brought to trial,” the mission said in an unambiguous statement.

Opposition Leader Keith Rowley who had jumped on the issue like a ferocious bull, said authorities have backed down just as the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) was preparing for street protests “seeking protection from the vulgar and corrupt actions of the government”.

But it is unclear whether parliament can reverse the petition to dismiss the cases of Galbaransingh and Ferguson in time before it is heard, adding to more confusion about the legislation.

For its part, cabinet said that “we have taken note of the concerns and the divergent views expressed in relation to one section of this Act. As with all laws, it is bound to be a variety of legal opinion and interpretation, in light of the different views we have decided as a government who listens to the people to err on the side of caution and to repeal this section in its entirety,” the official statement said.