Former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj is calling on Government to instruct the Law Revision Commission to examine the Sedition Act and submit a report for Government to decide whether to retain, repeal or amend the law.
He said in light of what other Commonwealth governments have done and what Commonwealth judges have found, that the law is not constitutional, Government has a duty to have the Law Commission advise the Cabinet on what should be done with the law.
He made the call yesterday at a press conference to update the public on the constitutional challenge to the Sedition Act by Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) general secretary Sat Maharaj and Central Broadcasting Services Ltd (CBSL) at the SDMS headquarters at Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College, St Augustine.
On Thursday at the post-Cabinet briefing at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said he was open to reviewing the Sedition Act. However, he said it should be retained to keep peace among groups in TT. He also said it did not curb free speech as TT has full media freedom.
He added that the Law Commission could review the act, given the ongoing public debate, or if Government thought it needed urgent action, the Attorney General’s Office could look at it.
In response to the PM’s statement, Maharaj said, “Whatever action he (Rowley) takes, the Privy Council will declare the law unconstitutional. But the Government’s failure to redress the law, to correct the law, would give the public perception that the Government wants to use the law to interfere with freedom of speech.”
He said historically the act has been used to punish political speech and intimidate the media as it not only interferes with the right to freedom of speech but the right to express political views, and the freedom of the press.
Maharaj explained that the constitutional proceedings stemmed from police officers executing two searches on CBSL on April 18 and June 13. Although they have yet to be shown the second search warrant, the first was issued pursuant to Section 13 of the Sedition Act in an investigation into whether Sat Maharaj committed an offence under the act on Radio and TV Jaagriti. They have not been charged.
Sat Maharaj and CBSL filed a claim in the High Court seeking a declaration that sections three, four and 13 were unconstitutional because the wording was vague and uncertain and therefore of no effect. He said the “principal of legality” required that all laws, especially criminal laws that can override citizens fundamental rights, be clear and unambiguous. The ambiguous wording could criminalise all statements that were unpopular of the government and infringes on the rights stated above, he said.
“The Constitution of TT of 1962 and of 1976 guarantees to every individual in TT the freedom of speech, the right to express political views and the freedom of the press. The Constitution provides that any interference by any arm of the State, that is whether the Government, the Legislature, or the Judicial arm of the State, interferes with those rights, the court is entitled to grant redress and it is unlimited redress which the court can grant to even declare the law unconstitutional.”
Maharaj expects the case to be heard in the High Court by the end of the year.
He noted that the United Kingdom abolished the law in 2009 and other Commonwealth countries that inherited the law from the UK either repealed it, amended the law to align it to the country’s constitution, or left the law in the books but did not enforce them.
He said, “(The amendments usually stated that) the offence of sedition can not be committed in relation to what it is in the law of TT and what was in the law of that country unless the words spoken or the words published or the action taken incited violence or had a tendency to incite violence.”
He gave several examples including cases in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India and Nigeria. He said in abolishing the crime of sedition, the UK and New Zealand said the vague wording offended the fundamental principles of criminal law; that it’s historical context of “the divine right of kings” no longer held so the law should be done away with; while some political views were unpopular or unreasonable, criminalizing them offended democratic values; that the definition of sedition offended fundamental freedoms of speech and expression; and that in practice the law was used to silence political opposition or criticism of the government.
Maharaj compared the situation to Nelson Mandela’s arrest for treason, and Mahatma Gandhi’s charge of sedition under a similarly worded Sedition Act in India. “We must understand as citizens that what is happening to Mr Sat Maharaj today could happen to any one of us... It is important to stand up, stand up for rights when a government is attempting to buy your right.”
Use another law
Indirectly addressing a concern of the PM, that the law was necessary to keep peace among groups, attorney Jagdeo Singh said, “In the context of sedition, there were different offences which are available to any arm of law enforcement to enforce conduct that may or may not fall within the ambit of this act.”
He said the Sedition Act recognised such because section ten said, “Nothing in this act prevents a prosecution under the common law or under any other act; but a person shall not be punished twice for the same offence.”
He said there was a stigma to sedition and a conviction was harsh at a $3,000 fine and two years imprisonment at the magistrate’s court, and $20,000 and five years imprisonment at the High Court.
Singh gave several examples of aspects of sedition that could be dealt with by other provisions of the law. He said the common law offence of incitement covered encouraging anyone to an act of violence or criminal activity while the Equal Opportunity legislation covered a statement that caused disaffection among the population. In addition he said summary offences addressed other issues such as harassment and breaching the peace.
Also, he said Section 3.3 of the Sedition Act said if someone acted on a statement, the speaker or writer is deemed to have seditious intent. “So some crazy, delusional man acts on something you say, this law deems that you intend those consequences.”
“Why, if the act in Section Ten expressly accepts that you could prosecute for any other law, why is there a necessity to keep the vague, uncertain and potentially misuseable, to coin a term, offence of sedition? It serves no place in a modern democratic society.”
He said while people may not agree with each other, every citizen had a right to express their view. “So in essence Mr (Ramesh) Maharaj has summed up the case that we may not agree with everything each other has to say but we will defend your right to say it with every sinew in our body. And that is what this case is about.”
Maharaj added that most aspects of the Sedition Act were covered under other provisions and if not, new laws could be passed.
National Trade Union Centre of TT general secretary Michael Annisette visited with Sat Maharaj after the press conference. On Thursday, he announced that the labour movement would write to Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi to repeal the legislation as well as begin its own constitutional challenge to the Sedition Act.
The statement was made after Public Services Association president Watson Duke was charged for sedition on August 29. At one point Duke’s lawyer, John Heath, suggested that Duke may consider joining Sat Maharaj’s constitutional challenge.
However, during the press conference Maharaj said they would not join any other party as their case was already advanced but he said nothing prevented anyone else from filing their own case.
This story has been updated with additional details. Below is the original story.
Former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj is calling on the Government to instruct the Law Revision Commission to examine the Sedition Act and submit a report for Government to decide whether to retain, repeal or amend the law.
He made the call on Saturday morning at a press conference to update the public on the constitutional challenge to the Sedition Act by Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha general secretary, Sat Maharaj at the SDMS headquarters at Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College, St Augustine.
He said the wording of the Sedition Act is vague, uncertain and general. It interferes with the freedom to express political views, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press. He said many Commonwealth countries which inherited the law from Britain, including Britain, have either abolished or amended the law because it is unconstitutional.
He noted that the law was rarely used and has historically been used to silence political opposition.
He added that the case was expected to be heard in the High Court by the end of the year.