Despite 2011 SoE trauma, Rio Claro man insists: Trinidad is still a paradise

Ashmeed Mohammed now lives a simple life reaing goats and planting small crops in Rio Claro. - PHOTO BY ANGELO MARCELLE
Ashmeed Mohammed now lives a simple life reaing goats and planting small crops in Rio Claro. - PHOTO BY ANGELO MARCELLE

In a quaint village in southeast Trinidad, a 55-year-old man tends to his crops and rears his livestock.

Far away from the hustle and bustle of the larger townships in the south of the island, Ashmeed Mohammed prefers to live and work in solitude.

Mohammed, who worked in Canada in the 1990s, says he has had a bittersweet relationship with his native TT since returning in 2005 after being branded a terrorist by local authorities.

Ten years ago, Mohammed along with 16 other men, was arrested for a purported plot to assassinate the prime minister at the time, Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

This plot was supposedly one of the reasons put forward to justify the 2011 state of emergency (SoE) that was in effect from August 22-December 5, that year.

Owing to a lack of evidence, no charges were ever brought against Mohammed and the other men detained during the state of emergency, but memories of his time in custody weigh heavily on him.

Speaking with Sunday Newsday at his Rio Claro home in February, Mohammed recalled his experience of being arrested, but said despite the pain and embarrassment he experienced during the SoE, he insists TT is still his paradise.

“I love this country. This country is a paradise. Really, when you understand what goes on in other countries, from a social point of view, we pretty much live a good lifestyle in Trinidad.”

A La Romaine native, Mohammed left TT in 1990 and migrated to Canada, where he worked as a computer programmer and machinist.

Ashmeed Mohammed gathers grass to feed his goats in Rio Claro. - PHOTO BY ANGELO MARCELLE

After earning enough cash to live comfortably, Mohammed said he felt a need to return home and did so in 2005, returning to his hometown, where he began a tent rental business, which flourished for a while.

Up until the SoE was declared in 2011, Mohammed said he has lived an uneventful lifestyle with no run-ins with police, and insists to this day he has a clean certificate of character.

Senior police confirmed that Mohammed did not have a criminal record, but maintained that this did not necessarily prove innocence.

Recalling the day of his arrest, Mohammed said an afternoon of running errands took a surprising turn.

“I came out the bank and went to my vehicle, which was surrounded by tactical police and an officer said to me, ‘You’re under arrest. Step away from the vehicle.’"

Eventually during a search of his car, one of the police told Mohammed he was suspected of having drugs, guns and ammunition.

Despite the initial shock, Mohammed admits he was slightly amused on hearing this.

Ashmeed Mohammed, at his homestead in Rio Claro, says he finds solace in his faith. - PHOTO BY ANGELO MARCELLE

“I started to smile, and they watched me as if I was crazy, because I knew this was a piece of cake – because if that’s what they thought I was involved in, then I knew it was only a matter of time before I could go home.”

This was not the case. The police found nothing illegal, but still took Mohammed into custody.

He was taken to the Freeport police station, where he would remain for the next six days.

At this point he says his amusement turned to genuine concern, as he still had not been told the reason why he was in custody.

The seriousness of the situation, together with the poor conditions of the holding cell in the police station, were just a few of Mohammed’s worries. Any attempt to communicate with the police was met with silence.

With no newspapers or communication available, Mohammed managed to get a snippet of information from a policeman on duty.

“The officer told me, ‘They arrested you because they believe you are part of a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister.’

"So now it gone from drugs and guns and ammunition to a plot to create havoc."

On the sixth day, Mohammed said, he was questioned by the police Special Branch, but this led to more questions than answers.’

“Then they started asking me if I know Robocop or this one or that one. Calling names of people I don’t know.”

"Robocop" was Selwyn Alexis, a reputed crime figure who was also detained during the SoE. Alexis was shot dead at his Chaguanas businessplace in 2016.

Police at the time also identified Ashmead Choate as a possible ringleader of the purported plot. Choate went on to fight for the terrorist group ISIS and was killed in Syria according to a 2016 issue of the briefly-published pro-ISIS extremist propaganda magazine, Dabiq.

Despite maintaining his innocence, Mohammed said he was still kept in custody.

He says while the police did not assault him, he felt uncomfortable during his detention, particularly when it came to showering.

“One night they came and woke me up and they really had me in some inhumane conditions.

“They used to carry me outside to the back of the (police) station to strip naked and bathe with a hose.

“When they had me in the back of the car handcuffed behind my back, I realised they were driving wild. I felt they did that on purpose to have me swaying from side to side.”

A legal notice from then national security minister retired brigadier John Sandy on November 30, 2011 ordered that Mohammed should be detained at the Eastern Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre, Santa Rosa, citing a "plot to destabilise TT and cause major panic."

Contacted for comment, Sandy who now lives in Florida, said he preferred not to.

"Right now, I want to stay away from Trinidad and Tobago matters, if I can say that, so I would decline on this occasion."

It was at Santa Rosa prison, in makeshift cells made from shipping containers, that Mohammed came face to face with some of his alleged co-conspirators.

With more information coming to them via the prison officers who guarded their cells, Mohammed and the other men realised that owing to mounting public pressure on the State to come forward with concrete evidence, their time in custody was coming to a close.

The 17 men were eventually released on the night of December 5.

His problems did not end with the SoE, as his bank account was closed, along with his tent-rental business.

Ashmeed Mohammed still maintains his innocence in the 2011 assassination plot against prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. - PHOTO BY ANGELO MARCELLE

In 2014 Mohammed was named as one of several people who left TT to fight for ISIS in Syria, when footage of a man resembling him was circulated in the international media.

Reports also speculated that he was killed during an airstrike, something he finds slightly amusing in retrospect.

Mohammed said he was visiting relatives in Canada and Morocco at the time of these reports. He pointed out several flaws in the stories published and questioned if the stories were true, how would he have left the Middle East and returned to Trinidad undetected.

He also noted differences in the appearance of the man shown in the video and himself.

Despite this, police again confronted him at the airport on his return to TT, but again he was released after questioning, owing to lack of evidence.

"Even on my Canadian passport it had all the places I travelled to. There’s no way possible I could have gone to Syria and come back in the time they said.”

This interaction did not stop the Canadian government from revoking Mohammed’s citizenship shortly after – something he struggles with, as he can no longer visit his ailing mother in Canada.

In response, Mohammed sued the media house responsible for the story, but in 2018 High Court judge Avason Quinlan-Williams ruled that while the reports were libellous, the companies involved proved they were covered under the Reynolds defence of responsible journalism.

Of the 16 people detained with Mohammed, at least five later left TT to fight for ISIS in Syria. Zaid Abdul Hameed was captured in Syria in January 2019, while Shane Crawford, Ashmead Choate, Fareed Mustapha and Yahann Cruickshank were killed in fighting.

Mohammed says the thought of going overseas to fight for a terrorist organisation never occurred to him after his experience of detention.

He said despite the trauma the SoE caused him, he saw it as a test and sought solace in his Muslim faith.

It would not be the last time he faced difficulties that tested his resolve, as a personal tragedy thrust him into the spotlight again.

In September 2015, Mohammed’s one-year-old daughter Salsabilla died at his Charlieville home when he accidentally drove over her.

Even amidst the trauma of losing his daughter, the public was again reminded of Mohammed’s past.

“The media in some stories described me as, ‘Ashmeed, the father of Salsabilla, who died in an accident, was also a part of the plot in 2011 to assassinate the prime minister.’

“What does that have to do with the death? Why do you have to bring up my name that I was part of a plot so you’re pushing in the people's mind not to forget?”

With everyone knowing his name, Mohammed faced scrutiny everywhere he went. He says some relatives have refused to speak with him since his detention.

These factors and a need to earn a living, Mohammed said, pushed him towards farming, so he bought land in Rio Claro, where he lives a quiet life "off the grid."

“Anywhere you go people are watching you.

“You’re a conversation piece. They say, ‘Yeah, that’s the man who wanted to kill the prime minister. Yeah, that’s the man who the media said went to Syria and was fighting war.’

“You know it’s always a bad, negative conversation among the population in Trinidad. So I tried to stay away from that and go into the forest to live. That’s my way of retreating. I look at this place as my place I retreat to find my peace and tranquillity.”

Mohammed survives by rearing goats and crops, uses what remains of his savings and ventures into towns only to get supplies.

As he reflects on the SoE ten years after his detention, Mohammed says the incident was a blemish in TT’s history, noting there were other examples of abuse by the authorities in their anti-crime sweeps in communities across the country.

He said questions still persist over the rationale for the SoE and where the information on this alleged assassination plot went.

While he considers TT a paradise and would not prefer to live anywhere else, Mohammed does not have much trust in the authorities and prefers to find peace in his new home.

In Newsday on September 4, former police commissioner, Canadian Dwayne Gibbs said he would not have supported the SoE if he was in the country, or had the authority to implement it. He was in Brazil for the signing of a drug-interdiction agreement. He said the Persad-Bissessar administration wanted to impose a SoE during Carnival 2011 which he advised against.

Responding to Sunday Newsday's questions via e-mail on her thoughts of the 2011 SoE and the intelligence surrounding the purported assassination plot, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar said, "I am currently much more concerned with the rationale of this Rowley led government to continue a failed state of emergency.

"Finally, the answers to many of your questions are a matter of public record. A perusal of the Hansard records, government statements and newspaper clippings will provide you with the responses you require on this 10 year old matter."

E-mails were also sent to former DCP Mervyn Richardson for comment but were also unsuccessful.

During his contribution to the debate to extend the 2021 state of emergency in the Lower House on Wednesday, the Prime Minister referred to the 2011 SoE, dismissing the purported assassination plot.

"When we thought it (the 2011 SoE) was going to end, there was an addition in a very curious situation where the then prime minister advised the country she was under assassination threat and they extended the state of emergency until December 5," he said.

"Madam Speaker, we found out later on that there was absolutely no basis for any assassination response, and of course it had nothing to do with suppressing gun crimes to zero, as we are being told now."


"Despite 2011 SoE trauma, Rio Claro man insists: Trinidad is still a paradise"

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