WHAT is the exact criteria being used by government in deciding whether it should allow or deny citizens access back into the country?
This is the question former government minister and political activist Devant Maharaj wants answered.
While the Ministry of National Security has published the procedure for citizens to apply for an exemption, Maharaj said there is no clear criteria in the public domain for assessing persons who apply for such an order.
On Monday evening, High Court judge Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh granted permission to Maharaj to file a claim for judicial review against Minister of National Security Stuart Young, after the ministry failed to provide the requested information in response to a Freedom of Information request that was issued in June.
In making the order, Justice Boodoosingh abridged the time for the filing of the claim to today given the urgency of the matter, and set it for hearing next Wednesday.
In his claim, Maharaj, who is represented by former attorney general Anand Ramlogan, SC, and attorney Che Dindial, stated that on June 9, he issued the request but to date, he has received no response.
He is seeking a declaration that the ministry’s decision to not disclose the information within 30 days of the request is illegal and contrary to section 15 of the Freedom of Information Act.
Further to that, Maharaj is seeking another declaration that he is entitled to the requested information, as well as an order compelling the national security minister to provide access to the information within seven days of the court’s order.
He stated that citizens ought to know what is the criteria used to determine whether or not they can get an exemption order.
“By keeping the criteria secret, the defendant can unlawfully discriminate against citizens and cherry-pick who he chooses to allow into the country without any form of transparency or accountability. “Stranded persons who are being denied entry have no way of knowing whether they meet the criteria, what aspect of it they do not meet, whether they have been treated unfairly and whether they have been arbitrarily bypassed in favour of others in breach of their constitutional right to equality of treatment under the section 4 (d) of the Constitution,” Maharaj said.
He added that the decision to not make the criteria public, gives the minister “totalitarian power” and elevates him “to the status of a god because his decisions effectively and in reality mean that he is choosing who will live or die given the desperation and ruination of many citizens who are stranded abroad.”
Many of those citizens Maharaj said are unable to seek the medical attention that they require to survive since they cannot afford it and, because they are not citizens of the countries they are in, they are not qualified to access via the public health care system.
Maharaj also made mention of the recent fiasco in which Venezuelan vice president Delcy Rodriguez and her team was allowed into the country.
“It would appear that the decision to allow some to come in Trinidad, and refuse others, is heavily dependant on the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the political whim of the minster of national security.
“This conduct reeks of nepotism, favouritism, and authoritarianism, and the results are clear; people’s lives have been destroyed more than the virus itself,” he said.
Maharaj added that accommodation for those citizens ought not to be an issue since there were approximately 189 hotels across Trinidad and Tobago that can be used to house them during the quarantine period.
“That is exactly what is being done to house the 250 non-nationals for the CPL games, staying at Hilton in St Ann’s. There are several large hotels in Trinidad such as Hyatt, Cascadia, Radisson Hotel, Hotel Normandie, Hilton, Holiday Inn Express in Port-of-Spain and Trincity, Kapok, Crews Inn etc.”
He said a simple Google search would show that in 2018, approximately 31, 000 people visited this country for Carnival.
In the years prior, the numbers ranged between 30, 000 and 40,000, proving that accommodation is not an issue.
“Persons are willing to cover their own expenses, and there are places to stay in Trinidad, and the businesses could most likely use the business to recover after the pandemic so it remains a mystery why are persons selected to return home done so arbitrarily,” Maharaj stated.