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Trinidad High Court Judge Rules Sections Of Sedition Act Unconstitutional

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, Monday, January 13, 2020 (CMC) – A High Court judge ruled, today, that two sections of the Sedition Act infringe upon several rights of the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, including the right to enjoy freedom of thought and expression, to join political parties and express political views, as well as the freedom of the press.

In a 46-page ruling, Justice Frank Seepersad said Sections 3 and 4 of the Sedition Act were patently inconsistent and are at odds with Section 1 of the Constitution, which guarantees that Trinidad and Tobago is a sovereign, democratic State, as these provisions impose disproportionate and unjustified restrictions on free speech, expression and thought.

“In addition, they violate the rule of law, because they lack certainty, are vague and so their status as law cannot be reasonably justified in this sovereign democratic state,” he added.

Justice Seepersad made the ruling in the case, brought by the late Satnarayan “Sat” Maharaj — former Secretary General of the Hindu-based Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha — who, in May last year, filed a lawsuit after police executed search warrants on the radio and TV stations of the group, taking away, in the process, recordings of the April 15 television program, “Maha Sabha Strikes Back”.

Maharaj, 88, who died last November had, on his program, described Tobagonians as lazy people, more interested in racing crabs and goats and targeting white women to rob and rape them.

But he challenged the lawfulness and constitutionality of certain provisions of the Sedition Act Chapter 11.04, particularly sections 3, 4 and 13, which he said were vague, uncertain and therefore illegal.

Section 3 sets out what is considered a seditious act, while section 4 details the particulars of the offences and section 13 deals with search warrants.

Maharaj and Central Broadcasting Services Ltd. claimed their rights to enjoyment of property, freedom of thought and expression, and freedom of the press and to express political views, among others, were being infringed by the legislation.

In the ruling, Justice Seepersad agreed that the sections complained about, are vague, lacked clarity, and leads to an arbitrary application of the law.

“One of the core principles, associated with the rule of law, is the principle of legal certainty. The rule of law demands that citizens should be able to regulate their conduct. Legislation, which is hopelessly vague, does not facilitate such regulation and cannot qualify as law.

“This Court is resolute in its view that sections 3 and 4 of the Sedition Act violate the rule of law. They do not qualify as law and must be struck out, as these sections do not meet the criteria of legal certainty. Given the evident lack of clarity and having found that they do not meet the standard to qualify as a law, they cannot be treated as existing law so as to be saved by Section 6 of the Constitution,” the judge added.

He said that the Judiciary, as guardian of the Constitution, has a duty to protect people from laws, passed by the Parliament, which seek to infringe on their rights and must, without compromise, uphold the rule of law.

Justice Seepersad said while the State should be entitled to punish statements or conspiracies advocating imminent violence against it, the community or individuals, the act in its current form is not an appropriate way to achieve such an objective.

“In a democracy, it is contradictory and unacceptable to bestow onto the people, the power to freely choose their government on the one hand, but, on the other, to deny them the right to exercise freedom of speech and engage in discussions, even if same seeks to criticise and condemn the government,” he wrote.

The judge said he felt compelled to record his disapproval of the statements made by Maharaj, describing the statement as divisive, inappropriate and unsuitable in a plural society.

“Its disapproval notwithstanding, the Court recognises that the deceased enjoyed the right to speak freely and to engage in an analysis of the society, guided by this perception of prevailing circumstances.”

Following the ruling, attorneys for the Office of the Attorney General sought to have the judge suspend the order, but former Attorney General, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, argued against the application, saying that if the State appealed the ruling, it was up to the Court of Appeal to suspend the order.

Justice Seepersad refused to suspend the order.

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