Tempers flared in the Senate yesterday, when Opposition Senator Wade Mark shouted across the floor at Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi. Mark’s outburst to Al-Rawi came while Mark was starting debate on a private motion to annul the Freedom of Information Order 2017. The Order exempts the Strategic Services Agency (SSA) from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A similar motion, filed by Naparima MP Rodney Charles in the House of Representatives, was defeated last Friday by a vote of 16 to four.
As he began his contribution, Mark claimed the order was a direct attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Mark further alleged, through this order the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) was turning the SSA into a private spy agency which was similar to the Nazi Third Reich’s secret police, the Gestapo. When Al-Rawi challenged Mark by quoting the Senate’s Standing Orders, Mark asked the AG if he was a Gestapo.
Acting on the advice of Senate Vice-President Nigel De Freitas, Mark withdrew this remark and apologised for shouting. However when Al-Rawi challenged Mark again later in the sitting, Mark became angry and told Al-Rawi he did not have a right to be in the Senate. “Get out of this Chamber!” Mark shouted. De Freitas was quickly on his feet and told Mark, “Take your seat”. De Freitas then suspended the sitting for 15 minutes.
During the suspension, Al-Rawi and Mark argued briefly across the floor of the Parliament Chamber before both of them went their separate ways. Upon the resumption of the sitting, De Freitas warned all senators that any similar outbursts or breaches of parliamentary decorum would not be tolerated. As Mark continued his contribution, he said the SSA is under the direct control of the Prime Minister and the National Security Minister.
He reiterated Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s claim that the SSA spent $500 million which could not be accounted for. Recalling the FOIA was created in 1999 under the Basdeo Panday administration, Mark charged the PNM has a habit of engaging in secrecy. Mark said the Opposition was not challenging the exclusion of information on law enforcement, intelligence or national security from the FOIA.
However he said citizens should have a right to seek answers about other activities of the SSA which do not compromise its operations.