Data from the T&T Police Service’s (TTPS) Crime and Problem Analysis Branch shows that four state witnesses were murdered between 2011 to 2020.
The best known was former special reserve police officer (SRP) Clint Huggins, who was part of a hit squad crime boss Dole Chadee sent to murder a Williamsville family on January 10, 1994.
Huggins was put into a safe house after he gave information to investigators that triggered the fall of Chadee’s crime empire.
An attempt made on his life while he was in state protection in 1995 turned out to be an elaborately planned sting operation and three people who collected a $1 million bounty Chadee had put out on Huggins were arrested.
The following year, after Huggins left his safe house on February 20, 1996, he was shot, stabbed, burnt, and his body was left hanging out of a car on the Uriah Butler Highway. However, state prosecutors were still able to use his testimony and Chadee and members of his gang were sentenced to death.
In May 2019, 13 members of a criminal gang spotted lurking around the Tunapuna Magistrates’ Court were arrested for plotting to murder a state witness as he left the court building.
Their intended target, who is in the witness protection programme, gave evidence in a 2015 attempted murder case where the victim was shot as he left a funeral.
People are placed into witness protection, a highly classified programme operated by the Ministry of National Security, only after giving a statement and asking to be placed into the protective custody of the State. However, a state witness who claims he was ill-treated and thrown out of the programme more than once, wonders if it is worth it.
He is expected to give evidence against police officers in a case dating back to 2009 and entered witness protection in 2012 but was removed ten days later after it was discovered that he had pending criminal cases. He rejoined the programme in 2016 but was thrown out again in July 2019.
“I was constantly tormented by these officers. I was threatened to be killed by a senior police officer,” he said. “My witness statement has been documented and should I die it still stands but they don’t care if I die or not.”
Frustrated that he can no longer take care of himself or his four children, the state witness now regrets giving a statement to the Anti-Corruption Bureau.
“I told them what the officers are capable of, I brought my fears to them and they took my information and then officers came and lock me up,” he said.
“The system has failed me from day one. I am not getting work because people are afraid to employ me because of the risks and they keep telling citizens to come forward every day. As much as I want protection, I don’t know who to trust. I brought the entire situation to them and they are the ones to protect me but I was constantly victimised and not taken care of.”
Former Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence-Maharaj, who was instrumental in establishing the programme, underscored its importance.
“If the police spend a lot of time charging individuals and then could not prove their case it meant that a lot of guilty people would walk free and there would be a lot of repeat offenders,” he said.
According to Maharaj, Dole Chadee would not have been convicted if there had not been a witness protection programme.
“There were a lot of discussions with foreign high commissioners and ambassadors to ensure that the witness and his family were totally secure so we had then a reasonable witness protection programme, not only with law enforcement in Trinidad and Tobago but abroad. We piloted machinery to help other countries and other countries to help us,” he said.
Maharaj explained: “You want to ensure that they not only protect witnesses during the period of time under threat but protect also when the witness has given evidence so the risk assessment shows the duty of the state to protect that witness even after.
“If you’re getting allegations against the programme then the Prime Minister should get involved in this because it is a very important aspect in the tool for fighting crime.”
Speaking in defence of the programme, National Security Minister Stuart Young said there is a very stringent procedure where witnesses undergo analysis and sign a legally binding agreement.
I am satisfied with the running of this programme and its professionalism. It is to be noted that this programme is separate from and not part of the witness protection that may be offered by the TTPS,” he said.
Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said while there is a perception of a flawed witness protection system, T&T is “one of the very few countries in the world where we have a 100 per cent success in witnesses being safe, never being killed or harmed in the witness protection programme. That takes a lot of effort to ensure that there are no leaks, that the persons are secured and that the individuals who are targeting them do not know where they are being housed so that alone speaks by itself.”
Griffith said some persons offered protection refuse to be part of the programme and others walk out.
“If and when they meet their demise it is difficult to blame the state or police service,” he said.