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Opposition Leader and former prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar SC MP. (Image courtesy Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago)

Renuka Singh

The Evidence (Amendment ) Bill 2020 has been passed in the House of Representatives.

The Bill, which has been a bone of contention between the Government and the Opposition for years, passed with 40 votes for, zero against and zero abstentions.

Last month, the Bill was passed in Senate with amendments and it went to the Committee stage to review each clause in turn. It received 23 votes in favour and six against.

The nine independents helped pass the Bill.

In the past month, both the Opposition and the Government clashed over the Bill with the Opposition initially withholding its support but then bending enough to say that it was willing to meet with key criminal justice stakeholders to discuss the Bill.

“This will not help you, but I say yes,” Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar said yesterday in the House to much desk thumping and crosstalk.

In a subsequent media release shortly after voting for the Bill, Persad-Bissessar called on the Government to now “do it’s job”.

Persad-Bissessar said she was not convinced that the passage of the Evidence (Amendment) Bill would solve the problems plaguing the criminal justice system, but supported the Bill to stop the Government’s “excuses and blame game”.

“The PNM Government has demonstrated complete incompetence and abject failure in dealing with the crime crisis plaguing our nation,” she said.

“Even though we remain unconvinced that this Bill will do anything to solve the pressing issues facing our criminal justice system, we in the Opposition supported the Bill so the Government could end its excuses and blame game on their total inaction to protect the citizens of our nation,” Persad-Bissessar said.

Persad-Bissessar admitted that her change of heart was triggered by the massive show of protests and vigils throughout the country in the wake of the murder of 23-year old Andrea Bharrat.

She said that now, the Government has no more excuses for the crime rate.

“Over the past week, thousands of citizens have taken to the streets in protest over the intolerable levels of violent crime assaulting them. The Government now has no more excuses,” she said.

She called on the Government now deliver all the “tangible changes within the criminal justice system to do the work needed to protect our citizens”.

“The ball is now in the Government’s court,” she said.

Before the vote was taken, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi used his closing remarks to clarify matters related to the Assembly of Southern Lawyers, which he had initially said supported the Bill.

Al-Rawi said that the Assembly of Southern Lawyers attended consultations on the Evidence Amendment Bill and while they attended the meeting with the Attorney General, the group made no contributions.

Al-Rawi made the clarification in Senate yesterday after he was called out by the Opposition for saying that that group and the Law Association of T&T had supported the Evidence (Amendment) Bill 2020.

Al-Rawi confirmed that the Assembly of Southern Lawyers did not support the Bill.

“I regret that the fact is that the Assembly of Southern Lawyers were in fact invited to participate but they provided no comments,” Al-Rawi said.

“They also did not provide any form of objection to the law no before us,” he said.

Two days ago Al-Rawi read out a list of groups that supported the Evidence (Amendment) Bill and was taken to task by the Opposition United National Congress (UNC) who threatened to take him to the Privileges Committee for deliberately misleading Parliament.

In a response that same day, Al-Rawi said that his statement was easily explained and said that Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar was showing her desperation.

He said that he wrote to the head of the Assembly, Michael Rooplal, and said that he promised him that he would put on Parliamentary record that the group did not make any submissions to the Evidence bill.

“I also told Mr Rooplal that I would put on the record that they did not oppose the law,” Al-Rawi said.

Al-Rawi said Rooplal submitted a statement to him, saying that it joined the Law Association and expressed “disquiet” about the provisions in the Evidence Bill about the recordings be submitted.

However, no such clause is before the House.

“Therefore I am disappointed in my colleagues from the southland from which I come that they would be referring me to their disquiet, shared by the Law Association in respect to a clause that is not in the Bill,” he said.