2004 Year in Review

 

IT STARTED with a bang. The road march of January 2004 was the sound of murder weapons in the hands of gunmen, the murder count shooting to 23 in just one month, lending credence to predictions by the police that this year we would surpass the 2003 murder count of 229. The irony proved bitter when a 31-year-old police constable was charged with the year’s first murder, Atiba Johnson, the victim, becoming the first of 254 to be murdered in 2004.

October alone saw 6 police killings in three incidents: Jovan Maxwell, shot dead in Tobago; teenagers Prem Narad, Kevin Singh, Dennis Roopchand and Ravi Boodhoo shot dead in Freeport by a party of police officers and Sherman Monsegue, another teenager, gunned down by a “police killing squad in the area,” according to some Carenage residents. Still before the Court is the inquest into 41-year-old Galene Bonadie’s death in Vegas, Morvant, which triggered a season of explosive protest against police brutality. The common-law wife of Morvant “don,” Sean “Bill” Francis, Bonadie died from a single shot in the head at point blank range from an Israeli-made Galil assault rifle within view of a number of people who insisted that the mother of five was shot without cause, while the police version said that she was trying to take the shooting officer’s weapon.

 

This year has seen the number of police killings increase from 12 in 2003 to 21. Acting Inspector Edward Williams, however, found himself on the other side of the gun barrel, the 54-year-old bodyguard of former President Arthur NR Robinson falling prey to the country’s murderous climate on August 10, shot five times by three assailants. In May, a double-dose of outrage rankled the national community, as the body of Ashmead Baksh, son of Naparima MP Nizam Baksh, was found, burnt and shot through the head, less than one week after Mala Mohammed, wife of self-made business magnate Khalid “Uncle Khalid” Mohammed killers took nothing but her life, leaving more than $5000 and jewelry in her handbag and several bullets in the back of her head and shoulder.

 

Contract murder was the major theme in February. On February 12, when Shawn Parris was sentenced to life imprisonment for the killing of Dr Chandra Naraynsingh, justice closed the book on Parris’ decade-long manhunt, extradition and trial drama, but opened a whole new chapter in the life of the convicted killer. On June 29, 1994, the unsuspecting Dr Naraynsingh was about to enter her car shortly after leaving work at the Langmore Health Foundation Clinic at Palmyra Village, San Fernando when Parris, posing outside the clinic with one arm in a sling in which the murder weapon was concealed, shot her five times at close range. Shrouded in mystery, Naraynsingh’s killing haunted the public conscience throughout the month of February this year, as her endearing smile appeared repeatedly in the print media. Now, in a strange turn of events, the self-confessed contract killer is now expected to stand on the other side of the dock–alongside another key witness, a yet unidentified man being kept in protective custody–in a second Chandra Naraynsingh murder case, to testify against the ex-husband of his own murder victim, renowned vascular surgeon Prof Naraynsingh, who is now accused of conspiring to murder Chandra.

 

Together with Parris, the unnamed “star witness,” who has claimed that he was party to the meeting of conspirators who plotted the murder of Chandra, identified Prof Naraynsingh’s wife, Seeromani Maharaj-Narayansingh and San Fernando businessman, Elton Ramasir, in separate identification parades at the Criminal Investigations Department, Port of Spain, earlier this month. Prof Naraynsingh, a principal shareholder in private St Joseph hospital Medical Associates, was later identified by Parris in a third identification parade and charged with the murder of his estranged wife. A leading member of the Caribbean Society of Surgeons, Prof Naraynsingh retained International Criminal Court judge, Karl Hudson-Phillips QC, who last year won freedom for former Local Government Minister Dhanraj Singh, who was accused of murder. The case is continuing at the San Fernando First Magistrates’ Court.

 

In March, the headlines showcased a “married” couple of a different nature. On March 12, 2004, in the full glare of the media, then Labour Minister Lawrence Achong tendered a two-line resignation letter to Prime Minister Patrick Manning during a sitting of the Lower House. Subsequently, the People’s National Movement (PNM) Member of Parliament for Point Fortin consistently pointed to the split in cabinet over an ongoing labour dispute involving Atlantic LNG as the reason for his sudden decision to break ranks with his colleagues. Achong had proposed that the minimum wage in the energy sector be increased to $27 an hour but did not receive the necessary support of PM Manning.

 

However, Achong could do nothing to dispel the widespread speculation as to whether his resignation was motivated by a separate matter involving his common-law wife, Marlene Coudray, the San Fernando City Corporation (SFCC) Chief Executive Officer and People’s National Movement leader, Patrick Manning. Coudray had gone to the High Court and challenged the decision of the Statutory Authorities Service Commission (SASC) to transfer her to the Point Fortin Borough Corporation, identifying PM Manning in her suit as one of several senior Government officials who had allegedly singled her out for “political victimisation.” The case of the beleaguered CEO elicited much public support and on March 22, the SASC withdrew the transfer letter and a victorious Coudray, re-affirmed her commitment to the SFCC.

 

Coudray and the former Point Fortin mayor held the spotlight for some time, Coudray embroiled in a struggle to retain her position and Achong determined to abandon his. On May 8, when Achong returned to the House of Representatives for the first time after giving up his portfolio, he left after a tea break. No cups were broken in the session.

 

On April 12, ecstatic celebration erupt in the Antigua Recreation Ground and across the West Indian diaspora when world double batting record-holder Brian Charles Lara swept England’s Gareth Batty delivery past Steve Harmison down to fine leg for a single, achieving with this simple act the superhuman feat of a quadruple century. It was at the same Antiguan ground, almost exactly 10 years before, that a 24-year-old “Crown Prince of Port of Spain” had amassed Test cricket’s highest ever individual total of 375 runs, a record which Australia’s Matthew Hayden would wrest from the WI Captain in October 2003 with a massive 380-run total. Lara’s 400 runs in the fourth and final test against England, coming in 773 minutes, off 582 balls and included 43 fours and four sixes, effectively re-instated the West Indian skipper to cricketing glory.

 

Lara was subsequently recommended for the Order of Caricom, the region’s highest award, and was even the object of Nelson Mandela’s admiration during the former South African President’s first ever visit to Trinidad and Tobago later that month, the iconic freedom-fighter stating that he was a great fan of Lara’s. Mandela and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, passing through Trinidad en route to Grenada to promote South Africa’s bid to host the 2010 Football World Cup, did not get to meet Lara during their brief visit but Government made Lara the nation’s new Ambassador for Sport and PM Manning promised to send Lara to see the 86-year-old Mandela at a time “mutually acceptable to both men.”

 

Lara’s team made headlines again when they clinched the ICC Champions Trophy limited overs cricket series in England on September 25, but their female counterparts, who, like Lara, want to go to South Africa, have seen no end to their financial sponsorship woes. The WI Women cricketers have until the end of the year to raise around US $200,000 from a combination of corporate sponsors and the West Indies Cricket Board in order to finance their trip to South Africa to participate in the Women’s World Cup in South Africa in March 2005.

 

In May, the Port of Spain Fourth (A) Magistrates’ Court became the centre of attention, for the unfolding drama of criminal charges laid against former Finance Minister Brian Kuei Tung, Chairman of Northern Construction Limited (NCL) and former Chairman of the Tourism and Industrial Development Company (TIDCO) Ishwar Galbaransingh, former CEO of Maritime Financial Group Steve Ferguson, former Chairmen of the Airports Authority Ameer Edoo and Tyrone Gopee and several other business people.

 

The story dominated the headlines. A two-and-a-half year investigation led by the Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau and assisted by a team of expert forensic accountants including Canadian Robert Lindquist had allegedly unearthed evidence that former government ministers, key financiers of the United National Congress, the political party itself and several other business people had allegedly conspired to form ghost companies which collected millions of dollars from the Airports Authority for work not done during the construction of the new Piarco Airport Terminal and that the money they gained from the $1.6 billion Piarco Airport Design and Project Management was allegedly split among themselves.

 

Kuei Tung, Galbaransingh and Ferguson had already been in court facing previous unrelated charges relating to the same project, along with former National Security minister and attorney-at-law Russell Huggins, Financial Director of NCL Amrith Maharaj, Chief Executive Officer of the Maritime Group John Henry Smith, former Corporate Secretary of Maritime Group Barbara Gomes, businesswoman Renee Pierre, Fidelity Finance and Leasing Company Limited, Maritime General Insurance Company Limited and NCL. That first case had gotten underway on March 8, almost two years after the accused had been jointly charged with money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the Airport Authority of $19 million during the Piarco Airport Terminal Project, among several other criminal offences.

 

Under the watchful eye of Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicolls, lead prosecutor Karl Hudson-Phillips QC matched wits with a team of defence attorneys featuring several Senior Counsels. Critical legal technicalities, such as the inadmissibility of key articles of evidence and the unconstitutionality of the legislation under which other documents had been seized, were in the headlines every day. The ongoing case, which will continue in 2005, took yet another interesting turn recently, when the defence attorneys for the two former government ministers, nine business executives and five companies already before the court on 19 criminal charges were informed that the State intends to bring against them a total of 60 new charges, which have already been drafted.

 

In June, the drama of the country’s youngest ever kidnap victim unfolded. The nation went from concern to public outrage when the mastermind behind the botched kidnapping operation turned out to be none other than 3-year-old Saada Singh’s kindergarten teacher.

 

On the morning of June 3, 3-year-old Saada Singh was taken from the Giselle Montesorri Preschool, one minute away from her Vistabella home, by a mystery woman in a gold and black wig. Desperate for her return, Saada’s father and grandfather, Sean and Michael Singh, owners of Compression and Power Services (1988) Ltd, begged the kidnappers to contact the family. The kidnappers eventually placed a call to the cell phone of a relative of Saada’s, a a call which police would later use to track Saada’s abductors. Then Saada suddenly re-appeared, walking on the side of the road in Siparia just two days after her abduction.

 

Stranger still, was the story of Kendrick George and Sebastian Mitchell, who admitted to the Express on June 6 that they had kept little Saada during the time that she had been was missing but insisted that they did not know that Saada was abducted. The men claimed to believe that they were simply doing a favour for a mutual acquaintance by taking care of his step-child. Police escorted the men to Port of Spain CID and subsequently, on June 8, Kimberly Moonsammy, Saada’s 22-year-old preschool teacher, appeared in the San Fernando Magistrates’ Court, charged with Saada’s kidnapping, along with her cousin, Jonathan Moonsammy, 21, Coleen Osbourne, 22, and 25-year-old Keston Franklin.

 

Saada is one of

28 persons who were abducted for ransom in 2004.

In July, a triple-tragedy on the nation’s roads rocked the nation. On July 26, what might have been a pleasant afternoon drive to scenic Maracas Bay ended in disaster for Darryl Diaz, Wayne Whiskey, Lincoln John, Glenroy Guerra and Wayne “Bunny” Mascall, all of whom were in their twenties. Three of the young men were killed instantly when a malfunction of the accelerator in the black Ford Escort in which they were seated caused their car to slam into a PTSC bus travelling in the opposite direction along the North Coast Road. Only Guerra suffered light injuries, while Mascall, the driver of the vehicle, remained in critical condition at the Port of Spain General Hospital. The number of deaths on the road for 2004 has risen to

185, as the nation’s motorists speed towards the 2003 road fatality count of 198, the recent tragedies of 24-year-old soca entertainer Onika Bostic, who died on December 19, one week after suffering severe head and spinal injuries in a car crash on the Eastern Main Road, Laventille, as she was heading to a concert in Chaguaramas, and of national cricketer Jonathan Augustus, whose van careened into a bus shed along the Uriah Butler Highway killing two young men, perhaps serving as the most prominent example of how unsafe our roads can be.

George Bovell III was undoubtedly the star of August, earning the country’s very first Olympic medal in the swimming pool. Bovell’s bronze, which he won in the 200 metres individual medley, was also the only medal that the 24-member Trinidad and Tobago Olympic team brought back from the 28th Olympiad, which took place from August 13 to 29 in the historic birthplace of the Games, Athens, Greece.

 

Candice Scott and Cleopatra Borel also emerged from the Games as shining stars, Borel taking tenth place in the women shot put final and thereby becoming the first woman from Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for an Olympic final, while Scott’s ninth place finish in the women’s hammer throw final ranked her as the country’s most successful field athlete in Olympic history.

 

Sprint stars Darrel Brown and Ato Boldon were among the 18 T&T track and field athletes to do battle at the Summer Games but neither the 2003 World Championship men’s century silver medallist nor the quadruple Olympic medallist contested the prestigious 100m final. Instead, the pair, joined by Niconnor Alexander and Marc Burns, would represent Trinidad and Tobago in the country’s first Olympic men’s 4x100m relay championship race, finishing seventh in the field of eight.

 

Like Lara in April, Bovell came home to a hero’s welcome in September, receiving the Chaconia Medal (Gold) for long and meritorious service in the sphere of sports. Another award Humming Bird Medal (Gold) for bravery, gallantry and loyalty would later go posthumously to Acting Police Inspector Edward Williams, slain in the line of duty. But the glory of their contribution to national life was almost overshadowed by a controversy surrounding the name of the country highest award, as the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) inaugurated an alternative to the national awards as a symbolic statement of protest against perceived anti-Indian discrimination.

 

Speaking at the inaugural award ceremony, attorney Anand Ramlogan suggested that there was a deeper issue of marginalisation of the Indo-Trinidadian community, pointing to the fact that of the 65 Trinity Crosses awarded since the inception of the national awards in 1969, only eight had gone to Indo-Trinidadians. But when Opposition Senator Robin Montano talked of renaming the Trinity Cross “The Grand Medal of the Republic,” Prime Minister Patrick Manning intervened, signalling his intention to take no action to change the name of the Trinity Cross.

 

It was in October, however, that Manning was most outspoken, delivering an almost three-hour long budget speech. On October 8, the Finance Minister’s presentation of the Appropriation Bill, based on an oil-planning price of US$25 per barrel–although oil prices had at the time risen to almost $50 per barrel–with a netback gas price of US$1.50 per cubic foot, announced a total Central Government expenditure of a whopping 27.9 billion, with the Ministry of Education receiving the heftiest allocation, $3.14 billion, the Ministry of National Security receiving $2.33 billion and the Ministry of Health given $1.86 billion. Although the stated theme of the budget was “Ensuring Our Future Survival,” Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar promptly re-dubbed it a “mauby budget,” highlighting Government’s decision to put a Value Added Tax (VAT) zero-rating on mauby, as well as brown sugar, cocoa powder, coffee and orange juice. Other analysts criticised the budget’s apparent lack of long-term vision.

 

The budget included several fiscal measures, such as a forty-six per cent reduction in the surcharge on the importation of chicken and turkey parts, a reduction in the prices of powered milk, split peas, black eye beans and cheese, the removal of Business Levy from registered small businesses and increases in personal tax allowance and duty-free allowance. The budget also outlined plans to introduce free tertiary education by 2008, free medical care at the Eric Williams Medical Complex in Mount Hope and an increase in old age pension, among other items of Government spending.

 

Although the “bumper budget” was a clear sign that the nation had entered a season of plenty, Manning’s later proposal to send $20 million in relief to Grenada in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan was met with heavy criticism from some quarters, as several voices spoke out in objection to the attempt to address the problems of other countries before our own problems were addressed. Others supported the Prime Minister, as Ivan had taken the lives of at least 39 Grenadians and Jeanne would later claim over 1500 lives, mostly in Haiti. Indeed, Hurricanes Charles, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne would eventually cause well above US $5.7 billion in damage in the rest of the Caribbean, leaving Trinidad remained largely untouched.

 

Maybe the tragedies of November were some form of retribution. On November 12, six hours of non-stop rain caused a massive landslide which claimed the lives of 30-year-old Tyrone McMillan and 16-year-old Kathy Ann Ferguson, two residents of Delaford, Tobago whose houses were completely submerged in a mountain of mud and debris. Observers described the phenomenon as “worse than Hurricane Ivan,” a comment which bears some weight, given that Ivan had killed more than 70 people in the Caribbean and, significantly, one in Tobago.

 

Perhaps we should have expected a landslide in Tobago, with THA elections just around the corner, on January 17th. National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) interim leader, Cecil Caruth, announced, on December 11, his decision to share the platform with the Hochoy Charles-led Democratic Action Congress (DAC), the two minority parties forming an opposition coalition in order to present a united front against the ruling PNM. The decision contradicted an earlier report from Tobago NAR chairman Christo Gift that talks NAR-DAC talks on a possible union had broken down.

 

Observers of the lead-up to the island’s January 2005 elections will have noted several curiousities, including:

 

*the PNM’s failure to announce, before the dissolution of the THA, changes in electoral boundaries recommended by the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) in ten of 12 THA districts—of which eight are held by the PNM, the NAR and DAC holding two each

 

*the decision by UNC Tobago official, Barrington “Skippy” Thomas, to contest the elections race as an independent candidate

 

*the decision by former PNM stalwart, Anthony Arnold, to run for Scarborough/Calder Hall against Tobago PNM leader, Orville London

 

*the unexpected appearance of PNM Secretary of Agriculture, Marine Affairs and the Environment, Hughford McKenna, on the DAC platform, the former Assemblyman for Belle Garden/Goodwood abandoning his party and post to support the DAC candidate for that district

 

*the surprise appearance of Diego Martin West MP, Dr Keith Rowley, as a speaker at the PNM rally in which the party’s 12 candidates for the elections were presented.

 

Rowley is still facing possible expulsion or suspension from Parliament, pending the decision of the Privileges Committee of Parliament on a September 15 incident in which he allegedly assaulted and threw a tea cup at Opposition MP Chandresh Sharma in the tea room of the Parliament building. In fact, up to last month, when Director of Public Prosecution Geoffrey Henderson announced his decision to leave the matter up to the Parliamentary Committee, Rowley was facing the possibility of serving the maximum criminal penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment, as Sharma had also lodged a complaint about the altercation at the Central Police Station.

 

But it is Rowley’s alleged involvement in the Scarborough Hospital project, now $134.1 million over its initial $135.9 budget and more than a year behind schedule, which may prove most costly to the PNM in next month’s THA elections. On October 14, during his contribution to the budget debate, Chief Whip Ganga Singh brandished documents allegedly showing that Housing Minister Dr Keith Rowley had systematically siphoned thousands of dollars worth of state-purchased equipment, labour and building materials from the New Scarborough Hospital project to his privately owned Mason Hall development, Landate, with the assistance of NH International (Caribbean) Ltd, the firm sub-contracted by Warner Contractors to develop Rowley’s Mason Hall land. Although both Rowley and Emile Elias, executive chairman of NH International (Caribbean) Ltd, denied any wrongdoing in the matter, PM Manning decided to refer the matter to the Integrity Commission and set up a three-member Commission of Enquiry headed by retired Justice Annestine Sealey to investigate the allegations.

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