$1m for Tobago chef blocked from appealing wrongful conviction

A TOBAGO chef who was wrongly convicted of trafficking cocaine in 2010 will receive close to $1 million from the State because the prison service failed to allow him to file an appeal.
He will receive a total of $980,000 for the breach of his constitutional rights, for the three and a half years he spent in prison, and to denounce the conduct of the prison service.
The chef has asked that his name not be used given the quantum of compensation he is to receive and for security reasons.

Making the order on Friday was Justice Margaret Mohammed, in a written decision in which she also awarded the chef interest and costs.
He was represented by attorneys Farai Hove Masaisai and Issa Jones. Keisha Prosper and Laura Persad appeared for the Attorney General.

In her ruling, Mohammed reminded that a person who has been convicted and sentenced was still guaranteed the right to equality before the law, protection of the law, equality of treatment from any public authority, and the right not to be deprived of his life, liberty, security, and enjoyment of property without due process of the law.

She said the State and its servants had a duty to ensure the law was observed and in the chef's case, by ensuring that a convicted person gets an opportunity to appeal during the statutory period.
He had complained that after he was convicted in the Tobago magistrates’ court and sentenced to five years’ hard labour, he was repeatedly denied an opportunity to appeal.

He was only able to appeal his conviction and sentence after he had served three and a half years. His conviction and sentence were eventually set aside at his appeal in October 2013.
The judge said in her ruling, “In my opinion, the conduct of the members of the prison service was alarming and must be denounced in the strongest manner.

“Members of the Prison Service must treat all persons who have been convicted and sentenced with dignity, and respect their rights which have been enshrined in the Constitution,”
She also felt strongly about the length of time before appeals are heard, saying, “If anything it is an indictment on the criminal justice system that it takes about two years for an appeal of a person who is incarcerated to be listed and heard.

“It is of particular concern as the very nature of the appeal affects the liberty of the individual.”
The judge had been told by a prison officer that even if he had been able to file his notice of appeal on time, in the current state of affairs, he would have still served the greater part of his sentence before his appeal was heard and determined, as it took 18-24 months for a criminal appeal to be listed and heard.
She said that was unacceptable.

Although she did not consider it, because he failed to support it with evidence, he said after he was charged, he lost his job as a chef on the Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas cruise ship, where he earned approximately US$4,000 a fortnight.
He also lost his job at a Tobago restaurant, and after his release from prison in 2013, he was not able to get jobs because he could not get a certificate of good character from the police.
He also said he lost all his personal belongings when his then-girlfriend vacated the apartment they rented. She also left him because her parents did not want her in a relationship with a convict.

He said other than the former girlfriend, no one visited him in prison, since his relatives all lived overseas. He also had no contact with his then-teenage children, as they lived in Barbados, where he had lived for some time.

He said his relationship with his children has deteriorated.

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