Five men and seven Venezuelan nationals, who were arrested and charged for breaching COVID-19 public health regulations by gathering at a guest house in St Ann’s, in April, have been freed.
Bruce Bowen, Christopher Wilson, Dominic Suraj, Collin Ramjohn, Marlon Hinds, and the foreign nationals were expected to go on trial before Magistrate Sarah De Silva yesterday afternoon, however, police prosecutors requested an adjournment as the virtual hearing began.
Inspector Rajesh Lal explained that the Court and Process Branch had recommended that the case be prosecuted by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) because of the public interest in it.
He also claimed that the case was one of the first where persons were prosecuted under the regulations, since they were introduced at the start of the pandemic in March.
The application was challenged by De Silva, who questioned why the transfer of the investigative file was not completed since she granted time to do so in a hearing, last month.
“It takes two seconds to send an email,” De Silva said, as she noted that she had dealt with other cases of breaches of the regulations where persons pleaded guilty and were sentenced.
Attorney Renuka Rambhajan, who represented the accused locals, said she was appalled by what had transpired as she did not think the involvement of the DPP’s Office was required.
“That is not the way the wheels of justice are supposed to turn. It has nothing to do with the preference of the police,” Rambhajan said.
She also said that her clients were anxious to have the case dealt with as their reputations had been tarnished by the fact that the T&T Police Service (TTPS) had claimed that they were attending a “sex-party” when it released information on the raid on the establishment.
“They have been ready and willing to prove their innocence after their characters had been blasphemed,” Rambhajan said.
Rambhajan’s sentiments were echoed by attorney Seana Baboolal, who represented the foreign nationals, including one with a newborn baby who was allowed to attend from her office.
In making her decision to dismiss the charges, De Silva noted that the police should have acted with urgency based on their concerns about the case. She also said that she had to balance the interests of all the parties before her.
According to the reports, the group was arrested at Alicia’s Guest House at Coblentz Avenue in St Ann’s, after a team of officers led by Police Commissioner Gary Griffith executed a search warrant on April 10.
At the time, breaches under the regulations carried a maximum penalty of a $50,000 fine and up to six months in prison, if convicted.
The maximum fine has since been increased to $250,000 through subsequent amendments to the regulations.
While their case was still pending, the local men also brought a separate lawsuit challenging the overall legality of the regulations.
Their case was heard by former High Court Judge and current Appellate Judge Ronnie Boodoosingh, together with a lawsuit brought by pundit Satyanand Maharaj over aspects of the regulations, which deal with places of worship.
The group’s case was dismissed by Boodoosingh in September, but Maharaj’s was partly upheld.
Boodoosingh ruled that the regulations did not provide enough details on how the offences should be applied to places of worship.
“That in itself puts someone in peril of being brought to court to answer an uncertain offence,” Boodoosingh said.
While Boodoosingh noted that his judgement was mostly a legal victory for the Government, he said that it should not empower it to widen the scope of the measures with criminal sanctions for non-compliance, without involving Parliament.
“This decision should therefore not be taken as encouragement to expand the areas of law where regulations made by the executive restrict rights and freedoms of individuals without Parliamentary scrutiny or without considering whether a special is needed,” Boodoosingh said.