Brown: I will never forgive Abu Bakr

Former Chief of Defence Staff Major Gen Ralph Brown
Former Chief of Defence Staff Major Gen Ralph Brown

Retired Maj Gen Ralph Brown will never forgive Yasin Abu Bakr for the 1990 coup attempt.

Thirty years later, there is no remedy for the bitter taste in his mouth left by Government’s decision to offer an amnesty to members of Bakr’s group, the Jamaat al Muslimeen, who stormed Parliament and threatened Trinidad and Tobago’s democracy.

Earlier this month, weeks before the insurrection’s 30th anniversary, Bakr, through an affidavit, apologised for the pain he caused TT. But Brown feels his apology is “too little, too late.”

“It doesn’t change how I feel about him and what he did at all.”

Newsday spoke with Brown in June in a phone interview from his Tobago home, during which he made his feelings about Bakr clear.

“That man (Bakr) is walking around in a country that he tried to overthrow, and he used the very Constitution he tried to overthrow to gain his freedom.

“But he will deal with his own conscience in due course.”

In 1990, Brown was the commanding officer of the TT Regiment, which he had joined in 1962.

“I wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to serve my country…So I applied to join the regiment before Independence.”

Brown’s memory of the coup attempt is bittersweet. On the one hand it represents a shining moment in his military career, but on the other, it marked one of TT’s darkest chapters.

Brown, said on July 27, 1990, he was one of the off-duty servicemen at the Hasely Crawford Stadium watching a football match between TT and Jamaica in the Shell Caribbean Cup Finals.

A colonel at the time, he was also vice president of the TT Football Federation and a house announcer for the game.

Smoke coming from Port of Spain was the first sign something was awry.

“At around 6 pm I saw a large plume of smoke rising from downtown Port of Spain, and within a minute or two Felix Hernandez, who was the assistant secretary of the football federation, ran up to the announcer’s booth.

"He worked at TSTT and he heard from the Nelson Exchange that police headquarters was blown up. A bomb had gone off, and that was what we were in fact witnessing from the stadium at that time.

"I didn’t hear the explosion itself. I saw the plume of smoke go up and I thought it was a normal fire in downtown.”

Hernandez “kept telling me the Muslimeen was somehow associated with the fire.”

Brown drove to Camp Ogden in St James. He and Chief of Defence Staff Brig Joseph Theodore had only a few minutes to communicate on what was happening in the city. Neither of them had a clear idea what was going on.

Brown knew he needed all the soldiers he could muster, and returned to the stadium to round up all the servicemen there.

“I used the PA system and alerted soldiers, sailors, and airmen…to report to the front of the stadium, where we commandeered a Carib beer truck, and those who had vehicles drove themselves and we went back to Camp Ogden. We were then able to break into some of the lockers and supply them with equipment."

By then, Brown knew the Red House had been taken. By 8 pm soldiers had established a tight blockade around it.

Brown, desperate for information, tuned in to the country’s only TV station, Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT). He got an unpleasant surprise.

“We looked at the 7 pm news from Camp Ogden, because we knew TTT covered the proceedings of Parliament, so we thought…we would have at least had some indication of what was going on from the Red House – but then, to our horror, we realised the television station was taken over by Abu Bakr. We didn’t know that at all.

“We were looking at the TV to try and find out as much as we could. Only then did we realise we had a second situation on our hands, because he said the government had fallen and that he was now in charge, and (was) calling upon the regiment to lay down its arms, and that sort of thing.”

Brown ordered another group of soldiers to TTT on Maraval Road.

He had another challenge to deal with: winning the confidence of people on the ground. What Bakr said on television implied a partnership between his Jamaat al Muslimeen and the army, something Brown strongly denied, then and now.

Brown had to convince some others of that – including even Education Minister Clive Pantin.

“I personally went to Minister Pantin’s home. I called out to him, ‘Clivey! Clivey! Clivey!’ because I knew him personally from St Mary’s, but no one responded. He eventually recognised my voice, as he told me later on, and came out.

“He also heard what Abu Bakr had said on the television, saying the army was with him, and knowing that I was in the army, he was sceptical to come out.

“He reluctantly came with me to Camp Ogden. He was concerned about his family, so I left behind some soldiers to protect them…

“I called for Mr Hernandez and Roy Augustus, who accompanied me back to camp. They were very high supporters of the NAR government.”

By then Minister of Agriculture Lincoln Myers had also found his way to Camp Ogden. Once most of the ministers who were not in Parliament were secure, Brown came up with a plan to get Abu Bakr off the air.

Returning to the Hasely Crawford Stadium for the second time, Brown sought the help of Clive Pantin’s son Bernard, the programme director of TTT, who was recording the football game with his assistant. Brown told the younger Pantin what he needed and suggested they travel to TTT’s transmitter. almost four miles away, at the top of Cumberland Hill, beyond Fort George.

With both Pantins, Myers and a TTT technician in tow, Brown and a team of soldiers went to the transmitter, and knocked Bakr off the air. Both ministers were able to issue messages to the population.

That Friday night was cold, Brown said, and surrounded by crickets and bush, he was tasked with what might have been the most important role of his military career, reassuring a nation of confused and frightened citizens that everything would be all right.

“I said the regiment had not collaborated with nor did we intend to collaborate with the perpetrators of this crime against the country, and that the regiment was mobilised and the ministers would keep them informed of future developments.”

Before the night was over Brown made a second trip up to Cumberland Hill, this time with acting president Emmanuel Carter. (Carter was president of the Senate; President Noor Hassanali was out of the country on vacation.) Carter gave his own address and declared a state of emergency, which included a 24-hour curfew around the Red House.

In the city, there were gunbattles between soldiers and the Muslimeen. At least three soldiers were wounded outside the Red House.

That night, leader of the insurgents in the Red House, Bilal Abdullah shot the prime minister, ANR Robinson in the leg after he uttered his now famous words, “Attack with full force,” when the Muslimeen told him to tell the military to stand down.

Brown did not hear the order himself, as it was made via a radio taken from a captive policeman who was in the Parliament chamber at the time of the attack.

By Saturday, Brown said he felt Bakr, with no means of communicating with the country, had become more desperate; he made a second appeal for the army to surrender.

Brown realised there was another television transmitter in Couva which the insurgents might access. Bernard Pantin contacted a technician who lived near it and asked him to disconnect the signal, but that did not happen.

“He was too scared, he refused. So we sent a patrol of soldiers and toppled over the transmitter.” Bakr’s voice had effectively been silenced.

“He was no longer able to use Radio Trinidad or TTT.”

Brown suspected Bakr might have underestimated the resistance he would face after his attack.

“We had a professional army. There were some ex-soldiers who joined the Muslimeen, so there was some element with him. I don’t know if they convinced him that the army here was a joke army, but he clearly misread the military. But the soldiers, to a man, responded.”

The 2014 report of the commission of enquiry identified at least two ex-soldiers among the Muslimeen: Lance Cpl Glen Simon and David Bethelmy.

Brown, in need of more intelligence, responded to the call of a captive minister to call in Anglican Canon Knolly Clarke, of the Summit of the People’s Organisation (SOPO), to act as mediator between the authorities and the Jamaat. He arranged for Clarke to be taken from his church in San Fernando to the Red House, though some government ministers were apprehensive.

The mission hit its first speedbump when the convoy arrived at St Vincent Street entrance of the Parliament.

“We were shot at. So we retreated back to Camp Ogden and put him in an armoured personnel carrier and informed Bilal Abdullah by radio that he was on his way in, transported by Mervyn Telfer, a journalist who volunteered to help at the time. He (Clarke) is a brave man.”

After what felt like an eternity, Clarke eventually came out of the Parliament with two documents, one of them agreeing that Robinson would resign as prime minister and the other that Planning Minister Winston Dookeran would be released and act in his place.

He also brought with him news from inside – of a graver picture than Brown could have imagined.

“When Canon Clarke came out he told us that the prime minister was shot. And he brought out Diego Martin Central MP Leo Des Vignes with him.

“Des Vignes was shot by a bullet which blew his heel off and he remained in the Red House and was allowed to come out with Dean Clarke. He was taken to hospital & later died of his injuries.”

With about 50 insurgents in the Red House, holding roughly 20people captive, the gravity of the situation weighed on Brown heavily. Further bloodshed was very likely if he did not act.

This was compounded by the fact that a body was already visible to soldiers outside the Red House, a grim reminder of what the insurgents were willing to do.

“On the Knox Street side we saw that dead body. For six days that body stayed there and rotted. To this day I don’t know who it was.”

But as far as Brown was concerned, the coup attempt ended that Saturday, as the insurgents did not present any danger to the soldiers.

He was still under mounting pressure to end the crisis. He considered some unpopular decisions.

“There were three ways of resolving this.

“One, blow the place down and kill everybody. Secondly, storm the building – and there was no guarantee that we would have been able to save any of them on the inside. We would have resolved the problem, but everybody would have died: all the ministers, all the Jamaat – because we later learned that Bilal Abdullah had given instructions, and this is from the hostages themselves – that at the first sign the army was going to attack, they were to shoot the targets, meaning they had a gun pointed at all the hostages.

“We would have lost a few men, I’m pretty certain. I had no guarantee all of my men would be returned.”

The last option was negotiation.

“Now I myself had been trained in hostage negotiation, about three years prior to that, in Canada.”

The situation had evolved from being an attempted coup to a hostage situation. Brown and his commander Brig Theodore had a line of communication to the insurgents through Clarke

The two soldiers had decided an amnesty for the insurgents was out of the question.

When he heard the word said for the first time during discussions at the command outpost, Browne walked away.

“I wanted no part of any amnesty,” he said sternly.

Throughout all of Saturday, negotiations continued with Clarke as mediator until Brown was called away to another assignment.

“The US Ambassador, Charles Gargano, had been out of the country but returned that Saturday via boat from Grenada,” Brown said.

Minister of Energy Herbert Atwell asked him to accompany the ambassador to Piarco Airport, where they would be briefed by security officials.

Brown was kept in the dark about the details of the assignment. For a senior army officer, that meant it was something top secret.

Unusually, the plane flew in from the east, Brown said for security reasons.

“It was a civilian aircraft with military markings. I went aboard together with ambassador Gargano, Atwell and Col Selwyn Derek.

“We held discussions with a few Americans on board. They inquired of me whether we needed help.”

Brown said while he did not see any of them, he had no doubt there was a small force aboard, hidden in another part of the plane.

“Now a BCA is a large aircraft. It is the equivalent of an early 707. I knew there were soldiers aboard the plane.

“They would not use such a large aircraft to transport (the) handful of people who we were seeing …The aircraft was configured like an office – the front part of it, that is. The rest...well, that kind of craft can hold up to 200 people.”

The Americans asked “at least on a dozen occasions” whether he needed help.

“I told them that I could handle it, I said the situation was under control.”

The military representative aboard the plane asked if some of his personnel could accompany local soldiers to keep an eye on developments until the standoff was defused.

“Five people, three men and two women, were allowed to leave, and they all carried radios and I learned after they were Special Forces communications people.” Brown believes they were among the troops sent to help if the TT forces needed it.

“They came with us and I personally inserted…two of them in the Colonial Life Building, St Vincent Street, where Col Bishop was, and the others came to Camp Ogden.”

Two stayed with Brown and the other, whom he identified as the leader of the group, stayed with Brig Theodore for the remainder of the time they were in TT.

It was now only a matter of time before the insurgents, weary and without supplies, surrendered, three days later.

For Brown, the attempted coup was never truly resolved. Decades later, the legacy of the insurrection remains with him, as for most people who survived it.

To this day, Brown feels strongly about Bakr and the Jamaat for their actions, something he considers unforgivable.

He described a chance encounter with Bakr in 1995 as he was waiting to see retired BrigJoseph Theodore, who was the Minister of National Security at the time, at the ministry on Abercromby Street.

Brown said he did not know why Bakr was at the ministry to meet Theodore (who died in 2013).

“As I came out, he was downstairs waiting, and he attempted to talk to me – and I just brushed him off. I think then I had made a comment just like I’m doing now on the attempted coup and he was trying to take me to task for the comment I made.

“But I didn’t want to talk to him.

“He also tried to talk to me all those years ago while he was in TTT, and I told journalist Raoul Pantin(one of the journalists held hostage at TT)I wanted to have no conversation with him at all.”


"Brown: I will never forgive Abu Bakr"

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