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Army, police rout highway protesters

(June 28, 2012)

 

Members of the Highway Re-Route Movement gesticulate as they quarrel with National Security Minister Jack Warner, second from left, and junior minister Collin Partap, who were observing the demolition of a protest camp in Debe, south Trinidad, yesterday morning. PHOTO: RISHI RAGOONATH

With his hands folded and his face expressionless, new National Security Minister Jack Warner faced a barrage of insults as he presided over the demolition the Highway Re-Route Movement’s protest camp in Debe, south Trinidad, early yesterday. During the four-hour exercise, police handcuffed and dragged off the head of the group, Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, while other activists wept.

 

The action started shortly before 6 am, when more than 50 soldiers and police officers swooped on the camp, taking protesters by surprise. The troops were accompanied by head of the Defence Force Kenrick Maharaj, Warner and junior Minister of National Security Collin Partap.

 

Deputy camp manager Elizabeth Rambharose came out and pleaded with Warner to allow them time to remove their religious items, as protesters were engaged in a 21-day fast. She said it would be sacrilegious to break down the camp. Warner, however, walked into the prayer room and personally removed some of the items. This triggered outrage as some protesters began shouting racist slurs at Warner, saying that instead of arresting criminals, he was attacking peaceful people.

 

“You will make a jail...You is Rawan (a demon),” Randy Boodhai shouted. Another protester, Ramkaran Bhagwansingh, added: “Before the end of the week you and Collin will catch a stroke. It will be worse than Manning.” Pointing his finger in Warner’s face, Bhagwansingh shouted: “Is we who put you there. Kamla is a traitor. This Government will fall.”

 

Warner, however, stood his ground as army and police moved in with backhoes to smash the two-month-old camp. Tears rolled down Rambharose’s face as soldiers uprooted jhandis. An hour later, Kublalsingh arrived. He rammed his car into a mud heap where a backhoe was parked. Running out of the car, he then lay down in front of the parked backhoe. Soldiers followed closely and grabbed him.

 

But Kublalsingh wrestled himself away from his custodians. The soldiers caught him but he escaped again and ran to the demolished site. Two policemen later handcuffed him and led him away. None of the other protesters intervened. With tears pouring down her face, Rambharose and Bhagwasingh went into their wrecked prayer room to meditate.

 

For the next three hours, debris was carted away on Ministry of Works trucks. Warner refused to say whether the camp was a security risk, explaining that he would make an official statement at his office in Port-of-Spain. Maharaj said the mission of the army was to remove the camp. “The role of the Defence Force is strictly based on the instructions of the minister,” he said.

 

“We are not going to comment on the political factors governing this issue. We are here to remove the structure in support of the Government’s intention. “We had one mission here to undertake, and it was to remove the structures.” Col Anthony Phillips-Spencer said the army had an obligation to support civil authority. “We act in support of that...We are given instructions, and this mission is being carried out within the ambit of proper military operation,” he said.

 

“High-value items will be retrievable by whoever they belong to.” By 10 am, heavy equipment belonging to OAS contractors moved into the site and began clearing the way for the highway construction. Leader of the Movement for Social Justice David Abdulah, OWTU president general Ancel Roget, Fitun president Joseph Remy and Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, later met with the protesters. The soldiers maintained a presence at the site throughout the day.

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