Activist seeks public records of closed high-profile cases

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Vishal Persad –

CAN the dead tell the truth?

A young social activist and blogger believes so.

Vishal Persad, of Millennials for Change, has embarked on a freedom of information project to compel the police, or other authorities, to release the investigative files of notorious criminals or those perceived to have been at the time the authorities were investigating them.

Closed Cases: The Dead Speak was inspired by Parker Higgins, an activist in Brooklyn, New York, who started a similar project, FOIA the Dead, in the US.

Both are long-term transparency projects that use the Freedom of Information Act to get information about the dead. FOIA the Dead seeks information from the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The US-based project received institutional support from the Freedom of the Press Foundation. So far there are 5,763 pages of FBI records on 60 public figures on its website,

Persad’s aim for Closed Cases is “for the dead to tell the country the truth” and to “help foster transparency and accountability in law enforcement.”

He believes the release of the files will allow the public to better understand how investigations are conducted and evidence is gathered.

“This will help ensure the public is informed about the true facts of the case, rather than relying on rumours or speculation.

“The disclosure of investigative files can also help law enforcement learn from past mistakes and improve their investigative techniques.

“Succinctly stated, the disclosure of investigative files into notorious criminals can help promote transparency, accountability, and accuracy in law enforcement. It can also help serve as a valuable historical record and help prevent the spread of media and political propaganda.”

Over the past year, Persad’s group Millennials for Change has been able to make progress in getting information from the public service on the recruitment of employees.

In June 2023, Persad requested the investigative files of drug kingpin Dole Chadee, Jamaat al Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr, former chief justice Satnarine Sharma and former commissioner of police Randolph Burroughs from the police.

He was told that “thorough and diligent searches were made for the requested information, however, searches proved futile” so his requests were denied.

In September 2023, Persad then made similar requests to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for documents relating to all criminal charges brought against the four.

He received only an acknowledgement from the DPP’s secretariat.

On January 2, Persad filed a judicial review application against the DPP.

On February 12, Justice Devindra Rampersad granted him leave to pursue his lawsuit which asked for an order to compel the DPP to decide on his request for information or provide the information.

The matter will again come up for a hearing on April 24.

Millennials for Change also has other FOIA projects in the pipeline. One seeks to examine the policy and procedures to grant firearm user licences and hopes to receive information and documents on the timeframe for the grant of a FUL, the number of applications denied, the types of firearms permitted to be used by the public and the number of applications that remain outstanding. The FOIA project also seeks to examine the murder rate in Trinidad and Tobago by accessing information on statistical reports.

The group also intends to examine the manpower audit of the police service and Persad said he hopes to gather and analyse data on the current manpower while also looking at recruitment and training, resource allocation and the administrative management structure of the TTPS.

“This data will be used to assess whether the recommendations given by the audit Committee have been adopted and implemented by the TTPS.”

In 2017, the Government received the 600-page report of the police manpower audit committee, led by criminologist Prof Ramesh Deosaran whose team was tasked with examining the manpower strength at all ranks and units in the TTPS; examining the developmental policies, standards and practices in the recruitment, deployment, training and career progression and assess the extent to which the expected levels of efficiency, effectiveness and accountability have been achieved.

In 2017, when he received the report the Prime Minister said the Government intended to use it as a blueprint for the transformation of the police service.

In February, Dr Rowley quoted extensively from the report as he discussed the tenure of current Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher.

Persad and his group are represented by attorneys Keron Ramkhalwhan and Shalini Sankar.

FOIA successes

Persad pointed to the successes the project has had so far in getting information from various public authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General, seven other government ministries, and the police service on recruitment practices.

He said the data and information he received so far, demonstrated that many positions in the public sector have not been advertised or accessible to the public using a competitive recruitment process.

“It seems that the ole talk on the street ‘you need a link for a government wuk’ may be true. To date, ironically, the police have recruited the most individuals without a competitive recruitment process.”

He pointed out that ironically, the police recruited the most: 610 people were employed on fixed-term contracts between 2018-2023 and 590 were not subject to a competitive recruitment process.

“I have continued to submit requests to public authorities to confirm whether positions are being filled via a competitive recruitment process and will soon generate a report.” He intends to send the report to the Chief Personnel Officer.

“It is my hope that this report will propel the public sector to be more transparent with their recruitment processes and adhere to the guidelines provided by the Chief Personnel Officer.”

The FOIA requests

Persad believes disclosure of the files relating to the four matters which formed the basis of the group’s first request would be of considerable public interest.

“Understanding the actions of prominent individuals who were investigated and charged is crucial not only for historical accuracy but also for transmitting important lessons to society.

“…This project is crucial in fostering transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system, even after the individuals involved have passed away” and “hopes this disclosure will contribute to building trust in our legal system by demonstrating its commitment to fairness and impartiality.”

Dole Chadee, whose real name was Nankissoon Boodram, was convicted for the murder of four members of the Baboolal family, Deo, Rookmin, Hamilton and Monica Baboolal of Pooran Street, Williamsville on January 10, 1994. He and eight members of his gang were hanged in 1999 for the 1994 murders.

Imam Yasin Abu Bakr was the mastermind behind the 1990 attempted coup in Trinidad and Tobago. The uprising resulted in the deaths of more than twenty people.

Over the years, Bakr was charged with conspiracy to murder, sedition, and encouraging violence. He died on October 21, 2021 without being convicted of any of the offences.

Former chief justice Satnarine Sharma was investigated by the police in July 2005, and in November 2006 for attempting to pervert the course of public justice by trying to influence the then attorney general John Jeremie and the then DPP Geoffrey Henderson to drop the murder charge against Prof Vijay Naraynsingh and attempting to pervert the course of public justice in the criminal matter involving the former prime minister Basdeo Panday.

Despite attempts to impeach him, in December 2007, an international tribunal ruled there was insufficient evidence to remove him from office. He retired in January 2008 and died on October 9, 2019. The criminal charge against Sharma was dropped after the main witness, then chief magistrate Sherman McNicolls refused to testify.

Former commissioner of police Randolph Burroughs was investigated by police twice. One investigation related to a charge of conspiracy to traffic cocaine at Carli Bay, Couva and the other conspiracy to murder two wanted men on the Lady Young Road, Morvant.

In the former, he was found not guilty; in the latter, he was committed to stand trial, but the case fell apart before Justice Jean Permanand in the Port-of-Spain High Court in 1987. Burroughs died on October 9, 2006.