Attorney: Coast Guard incident with Grenadian crew could disrupt trade

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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ATTORNEYS for the crew of a Grenadian cargo vessel which travels to Trinidad and Tobago weekly to trade want to know if the March 2 incident involving the Coast Guard was isolated or the policy of the security agency.

Attorneys Om Lalla, Derek Ali and Dereck Balliram represent the seven Grenadians and the Trinidadian crew member of the MV Rayniah J.

On Friday, Lalla wrote to Chief of Defence Staff Air Commodore Darryl Daniel seeking answers on the incident.

His letter was copied to head of the Coast Guard Capt Don Polo, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi and acting Police Commissioner Mc Donald Jacob.

Lalla also sought the assurance that the crew will not be impeded from continuing their normal trading activities between Trinidad and Grenada and that the incident will not affect the free trade agreement and right to free passage guaranteed by Caricom.

He also contended the actions of the coastguardsmen towards his clients, were “disproportionate, unwarranted and contravened the laws of Trinidad and Tobago and the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas.”

Lalla gave Daniel seven days to respond.

On March 2, a report by the Grenada Broadcasting Network (GBN), said eight crew members on the vessel were met with hostility by Coast Guard officers, which escalated to an assault on the crew’s captain and one crew member. The report said the crew member was seriously injured and now required surgery.

Lalla’s letter said the crew were on the MV Rayniah J, near the Bocas, in TT’s territorial waters off the Chaguaramas coast, when they had an encounter with the Coast Guard.

He said the MV Rayniah J was an 85-foot cargo vessel laden with heavy cargo and travelling at a speed of seven knots.

The vessel has been trading with TT since 2016, making some 48 trips a year before covid19 restrictions were implemented, down to about 24 trips now.

Lalla said the vessel has entered TT’s waters without incident in the past and for this trip, the vessel’s agent sent advance notice of its arrival, the names of the crew and the nature of the cargo.

He said on March 2, the Coast Guard boat did not make radio contact with the crew, but flashed its lights and manoeuvred the craft alongside the vessel, shouting obscenities and giving orders for it to stop.

Lalla said it should have been obvious that a vessel of that size could not immediately stop, because of its cargo and engines.

He said the crew put one of the engines in neutral to slow the boat down while one crew member went below to manually put the other engine in neutral.

Lalla said without warning, however, a Coast Guard officer boarded the boat with a high-powered gun, threatening and hurling abuse at the crew.

He said they were threatened again when it appeared the Coast Guard officers were not satisfied with the captain’s efforts to steer the boat to Staubles Bay.

At the base, the captain and another crew member were allegedly beaten before an unidentified Coast Guard officer ordered them and their vessel released.

“The physical abuse inflicted on my clients was unwarranted, disproportionate and illegal.”

Lalla said it was “deeply disturbing” that the Coast Guard was unable to identify a trading vessel. He said relations between the two islands have always been cordial, with a long history of mutually beneficial maritime activities and commerce.

He warned this incident had the potential to “disrupt these good relations and have diplomatic implications.”

Lalla asked for all evidence on the incident to be preserved and if there were any video footage or recordings, he wanted copies.

He also asked the CDS to confirm if it was a routine stop and search or if the crew was targeted and discriminated against.

The attorney asked for log entries; statements; the name and rank of each officer involved; and the name of the commanding officer who authorised the search and detention

He also wants to know the nature and extent of the threat the Coast Guard officers faced to cause them to use force on a commercial vessel and any or all policies of the Coast Guard that are applicable to the incident.

In a statement last weekend, the Coast Guard said an investigation had been started to determine what had happened.

It said, “The Coast Guard takes all allegations of this nature very seriously because they affect public perception of the Formation, which may lead to a breakdown in trust that is a key component for its mission success.

‘This ongoing investigation will involve all parties concerned by the time of its completion. The Coast Guard wishes to assure the public that all efforts are being made to ensure that this matter is speedily resolved.”

The Coast Guard said it held itself and its membership to the highest standards of conduct, and in no way supported any abuse of power and authority.

Earlier this week, Hinds told the Senate the interceptor crew involved had been removed from seagoing duties until the end of the investigations.

In the letter, Lalla said the investigation announced offered little comfort to his clients and the many who earn a living between the two islands.

He also said these types of enquiries were “notoriously” slow, long and drawn out and his clients continue to suffer personal injuries, financial losses and damage.