First Wave Movement goes to court over denied request to burn police flag

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

First Wave Movement leader Umar Abdullah, left, in conversation with police in Glencoe. – File photo by Jeff K Mayers

First Wave Movement founder Umar Abdullah has received a judge’s permission to challenge the refusal of Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher to allow him to burn a replica of the police flag during a protest in October 2023.

On October 28, 2023, Abdullah had to postpone a public march because he did not get permission to burn the police service’s flag.

Abdullah sought permission to hold a public march to take a stance against extra-judicial killings and to hold police officers accountable.

The group wanted to burn a replica of the police flag in front of the Police Administration building, Port of Spain, after the march. Abdullah applied for permission on October 13, for the march to be held on October 28.

On October 26, he received permission and a permit for the march from the commissioner.

However, he did not get permission to burn the police flag. He again applied for permission on December 29, but received no response.

On February 9, Abdullah got the leave of the court to seek declarations that the decision to deny him and to impose conditions on his request were unlawful. He wants the court to quash the decision and send back his application for the commissioner to consider.

Abdullah had been told, “The application as it pertains to the burning of the replica of the TTPS flag is hereby refused on the basis that such action has the potential to incite public protest and may occasion a breach of the peace or serious public disorder.

“As such, the application as it relates to the burning of the replica of the TTPS flag is refused in the interest of public safety and public order. To permit such demonstration provides no surety that persons will act in the interest of public safety and the law of the land,” the commissioner said.

The day after being refused to burn the flag, attorney Keron Ramkhalwhan, for the group, issued a pre-action protocol letter to the Attorney General and the commissioner, saying freedom of assembly was a fundamental right.

“The potential applicant posits that the burning of the flag is considered a form of symbolic speech which is protected as a constitutional right under Section 4 of the Constitution.”

The letter said Abdullah accepted that the commissioner has the authority to regulate free-speech activities to ensure public safety and order. However, Ramkhalwhan said any restriction should be “content neutral” and not targeted at the specific act of flag burning.

“The potential applicant has instructed that proceeding with the march alone without the symbolic act of burning the flag would defeat the primary objective of his demonstration.”

In a statement on the day the march was supposed to be held, Abdullah said the march was postponed until the group could “secure full approval to conduct the march and burn the TTPS flag.

“We firmly believe that this act is vital to convey our message and advocate for justice, transparency, and an end to impunity.”

In the pre-action letter, the attorney said Abdullah had been approached by people from the Port of Spain and Western policing divisions complaining about potential abuses of power by the police and “unwarranted killings of young men.”

The letter also said Abdullah was able to get statistics from the police Crime and Problem Analysis Branch, on police shootings which showed between the period 2006- 2023, the police shot and wounded 868 civilians.

“This figure represents 648 fatal shootings and 220 non-fatal shootings.

“As it relates to these police shooting incidents, only 29 officers have been charged to date,” the letter said.

Abdullah’s application said he asked for information the commissioner considered before refusing him permission.

He also said, “I duly applied for a permit to march through lawful means. I also requested permission to burn the replica flag of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service.

“While strictly speaking, there is no need to request permission from the Commissioner of Police to burn the said flag, I was transparent and open about all activities that would occur on that date.

“The Commissioner of Police, however, made a decision and/or imposed as a condition of approval for the said march that permission would be denied for the burning of the said replica flag.

“The Commissioner of Police determined and/or threatened and/or decided that the burning of the said flag would have the potential to incite public protest and may occasion a breach of the peace of serious public disorder without any evidence to support these findings.

“The effect of this determination and/or decision and/or condition was that I was denied the ability to burn the said replica flag.”

He said the freedom of peaceful assembly was a fundamental right.

“It is closely associated with the fundamental right of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech and the freedom of peaceful assembly are precious and lie at the foundation of a democratic society.”

The matter again comes up for hearing on April 15.