Ramesh: No time limit for action on Sabga report

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj. Photo by Ayanna Kinsale

SHOULD the 1997 Sabga Task Force report contain solid evidence of crimes being committed against children and that evidence forms the basis for criminal prosecution against the alleged offenders, the authorities can act on that evidence today.

Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, who was attorney general in 1997, when the report was compiled, gave this opinion on Thursday.

Maharaj did not remember whether or not the report was laid in Parliament 25 years ago.

“That was so long ago. I have no recollection about that report or its contents.”

But he said, “Based on what I am reading on the newspapers, I believe if such a report was brought to my attention, I would have referred it to the police or to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions).”

Maharaj said if a report like that contained serious allegations and identified wrongdoing which amounted to criminal offences, that was what should be done.

He added, “Even if that was not done then, nothing prevents that from being done now. There is no time limit to prevent a criminal prosecution like that from commencing.”

Once evidence is available from victims or potential victims, he continued, “With proper police investigation, persons can be brought to justice.”

Maharaj’s former cabinet colleague Manohar Ramsaran, who was community development minister in 1997, was also uncertain whether the report was laid in Parliament.

Once such reports are submitted, a specific minister’s involvement with them ends when they go to Cabinet.

Ramsaran said ministers develop policies, while permanent secretaries and their staff develop the mechanisms to implement them. The Sabga report, if laid in Parliament, would not have been laid by Ramsaran.

‘There is a system where the ministry would work with the AG’s office and they will determine whether it is to be laid in Parliament. There is a parliamentary agenda and all legislation would be laid in that procedure.”

While he believed the report was laid, 25 years later, Ramsaran was doubtful.

“I am very confused.”

He observed that current and former politicians are now arguing about the report and its whereabouts.

“The report was laid somewhere. I want to be honest with the public. My job was completed when the task force’s work was completed.”

Ramsaran’s job was to see what the report said about the problems in children’s homes and how to correct them in the future. In this vein, Ramsaran described himself as a dreamer.

“I am happy that this report was done.”

Before entering politics, Ramsaran was a customs officer. He had a copy of the 1987 Scott Drug report, “That was my introduction to these reports.”

That report dealt with evidence of police involvement in drug trafficking and other serious crimes, Ramsaran said no action was taken against anybody with respect to the findings in that report.

He observed the same thing happened with other similar reports over time.

Ramsaran believed that comments made by different parliamentarians about the report over the last 25 years provided circumstancial evidence that they were privy to its contents.

“We did not print many copies, but now look at how many have surfaced. Maybe it’s a big cover-up? Maybe it’s a big cover-up somewhere?”

Every Tom, Dick and Harry is coming up with a report now, he said, although only 40 copies of the Sabga report were printed.

“They were either hidden somewhere and now that this has made the news, everybody is coming out with one.”

Given the nature of local politics, Ramsaran wondered if this happened across several administrations since 1997.

Ramsaran’s aim at the time was to help children, he said, and the AG’s office and community development ministry “came up with a package of legislation to deal with children’s issues.”

He reiterated, “That is my take from it.”

Ramsaran took some credit for the birth of the Children’s Authority, from the legislation drafted in 1997 under the UNC

He was not someone who ever persecuted anyone for anything, he said..

“I did my work quietly and I looked at the positives in the report. At no time was I on a witch hunt.” Ramsaran said his political experience over time had taught him that government ministers and permanent secretaries “do not really enforce anything.” As a minister, Ramsaran said, he had no authority to unilaterally take action against anyone, and neither he nor his staff at the ministry in 1997 had any legal training.

Ramsaran reiterated that reports like the Sabga report were normally laid in the Parliament by the AG’s office.

Apart from community development, Ramsaran was sport minister . He recalled his plate being full and he believed his staff was competent to help him deal with all matters before the ministry.

In this regard, he thought the Sabga report would have gone from the ministry to the relevant agencies for action. Had his staff not sent it, Ramsaran said, “I was none the wiser.”

He did not see inaction on the Sabga report as an indictment against the 1995-2001 UNC government, in which Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar served as AG and education minister at different times.

Former independent senator and task force member Diana Mahabir-Wyatt said the police have not contacted her to date about the report or sought a copy of it from her. She is willing to provide them with a copy and assist with their investigation.

“They have my telephone number. They know where I live.”

Mahabir-Wyatt is baffled why some people are saying the report cannot be found.

“I have seen the comments that were made in Hansard (the Parliament’s official record) in relation to the report.”

She did not understand how parliamentarians could speak about the report if it had not been laid in Parliament.

However, she said, “References to it (report) does not necessarily mean that it was laid in Parliament.” She suggested that anyone who made comments about the report’s content may have had a copy of it.

“At no time was it a secret document. At no time, as far as I know, was it sanitised.”

She was concerned about a recent interview in which task force chairman Robert Sabga spoke about a night-time rendezvous to hand over a copy of the report to someone.

“It sounded to me like I was listening to Watergate.”

The 1972-74 Watergate scandal in the US involved attempts by the Richard Nixon administration to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters’s at the Watergate building in Washington, DC. Nixon resigned as president on August 8, 1974 as a result of that scandal.

Newsday made checks with Parliament about the report. The response was that there was no reference to the report on any order paper since 1997. But a Hansard copy of a finance committee report on June 2, 2006 had Ramsaran speaking about it, while he was an opposition MP.

“When that committee visited homes, they found children being abused and the managers of these homes tried everything to prevent the committee from going into these buildings.”