The Court of Appeal is scheduled to rule today (Friday) on an appeal over a judge’s decision to strike down aspects of this country’s colonial-age sedition legislation.
In January, last year, High Court Judge Frank Seepersad ruled that the law could not be protected from judicial review, under the constitutional savings clause, as it is vague, uncertain, and can lead to arbitrary application.
He also ruled that the legislation is not compatible with a sovereign democratic state as it limits constitutional rights to freedom of thought and expression and freedom of the press.
In its appeal, the AG’s Office raised 29 grounds of appeal over alleged errors made by Seepersad in his analysis of the case.
The novel constitutional challenge was brought by former Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) secretary-general Satnarayan Maharaj before his death in November 2019.
In the lawsuit, Maharaj’s lawyers contended that the legislation, which was passed in 1920 and amended several times, between 1961 and 1976, breached citizens’ constitutional rights to freedom of thought and expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of association and assembly.
They claimed that Section 3 and 6 of the legislation, which defines a seditious intention and the publication of such, is unpredictable and allows for discrimination.
Maharaj filed the lawsuit after police executed search warrants on the SDMS’s media house Central Broadcasting Services after Maharaj made a series of incendiary statements on his Maha Sabha Strikes Back programme on TV Jaagriti on April 15, 2019.
Maharaj claimed that citizens living in Tobago are lazy and labelled the men as rapists.
While no criminal charges were eventually brought against him and he suggested that such was inevitable while addressing supporters during SDMS Indian Arrival Day celebrations.
When the Office of the Attorney General brought the appeal, it successfully applied for a stay of the judgement pending the outcome of the appeal.
Appellate Judge Alice Yorke-Soo Hon ruled that the suspension was necessary to protect two pending matters being prosecuted by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and to prevent a myriad of legal challenges to other existing laws.
Yorke-Soo Hon noted that if the judgement is successfully appealed, the DPP’s Office would not be able to relay the charges currently being prosecuted, as the legislation has a one-year limitation period for doing so.
Yorke-Soo Hon also ruled that the suspension would not prejudice former Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) secretary-general Satnarayan Maharaj, who passed away before the case was determined by Seepersad.
She stated that Maharaj’s son Vijay, who was allowed to be substituted as the claimant in the case after his father’s death, would also not be affected as there was no evidence that he was being investigated under the legislation.
The suspension of Seepersad’s judgement meant that the DPP’s Office could continue the prosecution of its sedition cases including one against Jamaat-al-Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr.
While the decision on the suspension was still pending, Public Services Association (PSA) President Watson Duke successfully applied to Chief Magistrate Maria Busby-Earle-Caddle to be discharged of the sedition charge against him.
Maharaj’s family is being represented by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, Jagdeo Singh, Dinesh Rambally, Kiel Taklalsingh, Stefan Ramkissoon, and Rhea Khan. The AG’s Office is being represented by Fyard Hosein, SC, Vanessa Gopaul, and Josephina Baptiste-Mohammed.