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Trinidad : A former prime minister before Chief Magistrate to testify today

By Exilus Deceyon

Port of Spain, 24 March 06 [AlterPresse] --- Claims of political vendettas against former prime minister Basdeo Panday were levelled against the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Integrity Commission.

British Queen’s Counsel Allan Newman, who leads Panday’s defence, made the assertion yesterday, as he completed his arguments for a stay of the magisterial proceedings against his client.

Panday is claiming that the trial against him is an abuse of the court’s process and an affront to Sections 4 (b) and 4 (d) of the Constitution.

The UNC leader is before Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicolls on three charges of knowingly making a false declaration of income and assets for the years 1997, 1999 and 1998, contrary to Section 27 (1)(b) the Integrity in Public Life Act 1987.

The prosecution closed its case against Panday yes terday, and McNicolls said he would give his ruling on the defence’s call for a stay at a later date.

Panday is expected to testify today when the defence opens its case.

Newman accused the commission yesterday of breaching its confidentiality rules by leaking on a massive scale information relating to Panday’s case to coincide with the 2003 general election.

“That is powerful evidence to show that Mr Panday was treated differently,” he said, adding that no investigation was launched to determine who in the commission leaked the information.

“It was not mere coincidence,” he said.

Newman alleged that the issuance of criminal proceedings against Panday was part of an “ulterior political purpose,” as, too, the extensive “leaking” of the Integrity Commission’s investigations to the press.

As he called on McNicolls not to approve “this type of behaviour,” which, he said, threatened human rights and the rule of law, Newman urged the court not to be manipulated or abused “by unfair political advantage.”

“This abuse lies in the prosecution of certain politicians belonging to a particular party,” referring to both Panday and former UNC minister Finbar Gangar, who is also before the courts on similar charges.

“Hard-seeking political advantage is a clear indication of an abuse of process of the court,” Newman said.

But lead prosecutor Sir Timothy Cassel, QC, refuted Newman’s claims, saying the court was not being offended by it being asked to try Panday.

Cassel said there was no proof to prove that the DPP and the commission acted in bad faith, the burden of proving which lay with the defence.

“The suggestion is a very bold one. No evidence has been adduced to indicate bad faith on the part of the Integrity Commission.

“There is no evidence of the political leanings of the DPP or (members of) the Integrity Commission,” Cassel said.

Cassel poked holes in Newman’s assertions that the DPP’s actions to initiate proceedings against Panday represented a deliberate, intentional and distinct act of discrimination against the politician, since no one else was brought before the courts for violation of the Integrity in Public Life Acts.

As he went through several past commission reports, Newman alleged that the DPP did nothing to prosecute public officials who did not comply with the act.

“The approach taken by the DPP led to discrimination against Mr Panday,” Newman said, admitting that the DPP was entitled to adopt either a conciliatory or hardline approach, as he said, the commission had done.

“You can adopt any approach, but not when it causes discrimination.”

He said a conciliatory approach was taken with other public officials by the commission, but not Panday.

Cassel said, though, the late filing of declarations “was not the same as telling lies in your declarations.”

He said the only two people who did so were Panday and Gangar.

“The late filing (of a declaration) is not an indication of dishonesty,” Cassel said.
He also pointed out that the references to Attorney General John Jeremie and Labour Minister Danny Montano, both of whom omitted to declare interests on a particular form, was totally different from Panday’s case.

Cassel said Panday was guilty of failing to declare large amounts of money going in and out of a London account, the balance for which increased to more than TT$1 million “far above.”

He said the address on the account was an English one and not one in Trinidad. “Maybe it was to keep the account away from the eyes of the T&T authority,” he said.

Also prosecuting is Wayne Rajbansie, while Senior Counsel Desmond Allum, Fyard Hosein, and Rajiv Persad, Anand Beharrylal and Devesh Maharaj are defending Panday. [ed gp apr 24/03/06 10:00]