THE police Special Branch is actively investigating alleged land-grabbing by the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen at Mucurapo Road, St James.
Officers assigned to the elite unit began their probe after a section of land behind the mosque was cleared and backfilled recently.
The illegal occupation of the lands at Mucurapo was one of the factors which triggered the bloody attempted coup by the Jamaat in July 1990.
Sunday Newsday was told that Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat was informed of the development and in turn informed his colleague National Security Minister Stuart Young.
The issue became contentious about a month ago, when work began on land off the Audrey Jeffers Highway.
Neither Young nor Police Commissioner Gary Griffith responded to calls on Saturday.
In a WhatsApp response to Sunday Newsday, Rambharat said the Commissioner of State Lands and the Director of Surveys have been instructed to survey the area so that the commissioner can deal with the various occupants of the land.
“The office of the Commissioner of State Lands has been dealing with this matter for several years,” Rambharat said. “The substantive commissioner, Ms Paula Drakes, had at least one meeting with the Jamaat and the City Corporation, which is also an occupant. I think that was in 2017.
“Cabinet eventually agreed to have the site surveyed for the purpose of determining the nature of the use and occupation, and a few weeks ago I reminded the Commissioner of State Lands of the need to have that exercise done. That reminder is a routine reminder I give to her and others at the ministry.”
He added: “The (Muslimeen) masjid actually occupies land of the (Port of Spain) City Corporation and the State.
“The state land portion was never addressed.
“The City Corporation also built its transport and maintenance facility on part which is west of the Hasely Crawford Stadium. The City Corporation also uses portions to store equipment, including derelicts. All those issues need to be resolved.
“The commissioner needs to identify, by survey, what is happening on the lands and also determine the extent and nature of the use – including time period of use – and from there decisions would have to be taken.”
Port of Spain Mayor Joel Martinez, when contacted, said the land that the Jamaat currently occupies was not developed to the fullest potential and it should not be interfering with what does not belong to it.
“We applied for the land to expand the Transport Yard of the corporation because we have an issue with space. Other institutions, teaching institutions, also applied to us for land to construct schools, but we have no space.
“It would have been nice to have had the opportunity. We applied and we are waiting our turn.”
Martinez added that the issue was brought to the attention of the corporation some weeks ago and he alerted Rambharat. He added that the Ministry of Local Government is also aware of the situation and is looking into it.
Head of the Jamaat, Yasin Abu Bakr, when called, said the Sunday Newsday was “talking nonsense” when asked to comment on allegations of the Jamaat land-grabbing. He added that he had nothing to say before hanging up the phone.
History of the land dispute
In 1969 a Cabinet note had granted the Islamic Missionaries Guild the right to occupy lands at No 1 Mucurapo Road, St James, with the understanding that an Islamic cultural centre would be built there.
In 1972, the Jamaat replaced the Islamic Guild on the 8.8 acres of land. Of that, 3.4 acres belonged to the City Corporation.
Though there were no official documentation showing the property had been transferred, the corporation accepted rates and taxes from the Jamaat.
Notices were served on the Jamaat, but the only action taken against the group was in 1984, for trespass. In that the City Corporation offered the Jamaat a 25-year lease with the option to renew for another 25 years, which it later accepted.
On June 21, 1990, just over a month before the attempted coup Abu Bakr wrote to the City Corporation seeking regularisation and accepting the 25-year lease.
During the 2012 commission of enquiry into the 1990 attempted coup, Deoraj Ramtahal, city engineer, and building inspector at the time of the coup, testified that he had advised the corporation about the land-grab.
Ramtahal wrote about the illegal occupation of the land by the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen in October 1987. During the testimony the commission learnt that a notice had been served on the Jamaat for illegal construction activity.
Ramtahal testified that rates and taxes could be paid by anyone, but receipt of payment would be in the owner's name. There was no recorded testimony of who the owner was.
The commission was also told that in October 1987, the Jamaat applied for permission to build a school. The application was made on the premise of securing 8.8 acres of land.
An April 14, 1989 report by Ramtahal said illegal structures were being built on the land.
A year later, and one month after the July 27 attempted coup, the corporation responded to the report and issued the Jamaat with a 14-day cease-and-desist notice.
In 2003, the State paid the Jamaat $625,000 in settlement for the destruction of the organisation’s property during the 1990 coup attempt.
During the Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 attempted coup in 2012, Jamaat member Kala Akii Bua testified that the 8.8 acres of land was occupied by the group since the 1960’s. Fast-forward 30 years later and surveys done showed only 3.7 acres were supposed to be used by the Jamaat. Akii Bua told the Commission that this 4.1 acres of land discrepancy is what fuelled the attempted coup.
Leading up to the 2002 general election, then prime minister Patrick Manning wanted to gift the Jamaat the deed to the full 8.8 acres but forced to recind his decision after objections from Cabinet colleagues, including current Prime Minister Dr Rowley and current Cabinet members, Camille Robinson-Regis and Fitzgerald Hinds, among others.
Akii Bua said in 1998 the Jamaat first learned that half of the land which they occupied was State lands saying a 1969 survey showed that 8.8 acres was earmarked by the Port-of-Spain City Corporation for the Islamic Cultural Centre. A subsequent survey done in May 1989 showed the 8.8 acres was to be occupied by the Jamaat. A third survey done in 1983 reduced the land to less than half of that.
Akii Bua testified that the Jamaat’s problems began in April 1990, when they began to build their secondary school. Both police and army invaded the compound and set up camp. He said while the group was accused of encroaching on State lands, it was the State which was guilty of encroaching.
The police, he said, kicked out two Muslimeen families and occupied their homes on the compound. In all of this the Jamaat maintained that the land belonged to them adding that the City Corporation adopted a hands-off position to the land, while the State took control.