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Reflections from Trinidad

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Trinidadians will tell you that there is always some bacchanal at play in their homeland. The big news, or really, the latest confusion, has to do with allegations that Chief Justice Satnarine Sharma, who is also Chairman, Judicial and Legal Services Commission, used his position or his office in an attempt to influence the course of Justice. {{more}}

This stems from charges laid against Professor Vijay Narayansingh for being implicated in the death of his second wife, Chandra Narayansingh. The preliminary inquiry into the death of Mrs. Narayansingh that occurred in 1994, is currently before the Court. By Friday, the Professor will know if he has to stand trial.

Karl Hudson Phillips, appearing on his behalf, made an emotionally charged no-case submission. Claiming that he had not seen a similar case in his 46 years, he suggested that, based on the evidence, it was the height of wickedness. In his view, there should never have been a prosecution of Professor Narayansingh for the murder of his second wife. Although one expects Karl Hudson-Phillips to fight for his client, his statement cannot be taken lightly and must raise further doubts.

The controversy surrounding this issue was heightened on Sunday when the Express newspaper published a number of letters, apparently leaked. It seemed like a cloak and dagger affair with reports of secretly taped conversations. According to the newspaper, meetings were held at different times between the Chief Justice and the Attorney General John Jeremie, and also with DPP Geoffrey Henderson, at which questions were raised and concerns expressed about the case against Professor Naranysingh.

Under the caption ‘Lethal Letters’, statements to the Prime Minister by the Attorney General and DPP dealing with the issue were published. Included also were letters between the Prime Minister and Chief Justice and the Chief Justice’s response to the Attorney General. There is apparently no evidence that the course of justice was in fact subverted, but the matter arises at a time when there is a great deal of opposition to the establishment of the Caribbean Court of Justice as a replacement for the Privy Council. Opponents of the CCJ fear among other things the possibility of interference by the political directorate and the implication of this in a region that is so small that everyone virtually knows everyone else.

So from this point of view, the matter is not simply a Trinidadian one. If the matter is only about the implications of small size then there is little we can do about it for population size is a factor, not only in matters of justice, but in other aspects of Caribbean life. The Chief Justice denies that there was any attempt on his part to ask for a halt to the prosecution or any indication that this was so. The matter however was discussed and in the course of things, serious allegations were made by the different parties. The Chief Justice, according to one of the letters in Sunday’s paper referred to the conduct of the Attorney General as shocking.

By the time this issue of the paper appears the Court should have ruled on the no-submission case, a ruling that will no doubt be based on technical grounds and therefore not be able to address the major concerns and suspicions.

There are other issues arising in this matter. For one, it has taken a racial dimension, and of course in Trinidad it doesn’t take much for any issue to be played out on racial turf. Ask Panday! The Prime Minister, as he is sometimes wont to do, has contributed to the controversy by inadvertently handing the wrong statement to Chief Justice Sharma, a statement from the Attorney General on the advice of Senior Appeal Court Justice Roger Hamel-Smith. The Court will make its ruling but the damage might already have been done. This should, however, not give heart to those who want to cling to the Privy Council for while size is a problem in the regional context, distance and unfamiliarity with Caribbean culture is always one of the draw backs of the operations of the Privy Council.

The New Vice Chancellor

The other big news in Trinidad last week and one which took me to that country, had to do with the installation of the new Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Professor Eon Nigel Harris, a Guyanese and son of Caribbean author, Wilson Harris, now deceased. Professor Harris’ appointment has marked a departure from the norm for he is the first Vice Chancellor not to be from the ranks of the arts/social sciences. He has made a name for himself in the medical field as a Rheumatologist.

From the profile given, as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Lousiville, “Professor Harris launched the Antiphospholipid Standardisation Laboratory which leads world wide effort in the standardisation of the anticardiolipin test and distributing these standards to over 500 laboratories world wide…” Professor Harris is a graduate of Howard, Yale and the University of the West Indies. At the UWI in Mona, he did his residency in internal medicine and received the post-graduate degree, Doctor of Medicine.

In his installation speech he has demonstrated an understanding of the internal politics and dynamics of the University. He pledged efforts to emphasize science and technology and to lift the profile of the so-called non-campus countries, something he shares with the Chancellor, who is also a new entity. It was good therefore that two Prime Ministers of the non-campus countries saw it fit to attend the ceremony. They were Drs. Anthony and Gonsalves.

Professor Harris threw out a number of challenges both to the University and to Caribbean leaders. The issue of the use of outside consultants and the enormous sums sent out of the country through that route was one such issue. He suggested that 20 to 30 percent of the service from outside consultants be provided by individuals in regional organisations.

The University has a central role to play in this matter which would provide support for the growth of graduate programmes and help to build local expertise.

The ceremony, held at the JFK Auditorium at St.Augustine ran very smoothly. Music for the ceremony selected by the Vice Chancellor, started with pieces from Mozart and ended with an appearance by Black Stalin singing ‘Caribbean Man’. The audience left the auditorium to the accompaniment of Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’. This was supposed to reflect the return home of the Guyanese/Caribbean son.

The University of the West Indies has to position itself to play a leading role in the growth of a knowledge based society and in the Caribbean’s place in the global environment and the new Vice Chancellor seems equipped to do just that.

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