Panday: Piarco charge tormented my life

Founder of the UNC and former prime minister Basdeo Panday and his dog Norman share a moment at his Philipine home in South Trinidad.  -
Founder of the UNC and former prime minister Basdeo Panday and his dog Norman share a moment at his Philipine home in South Trinidad. -

"IT WAS like having tonnes of bricks on your shoulders,” former prime minister Basdeo Panday said of corruption charges that were brought against him, wife Oma, businessman Ishwar Galbaransingh and former works minister Carlos John in relation to the controversial Piarco Airport expansion project.

On March 6, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard, SC, withdrew the 18-year-old matter on grounds that the prosecution would have faced difficulties in achieving a “fair prospect of conviction” if the trial proceeded.

The four were expected to face a preliminary enquiry before magistrate Adia Mohammed.

The Pandays were charged with corruptly receiving $250,000 on December 30, 1998, from John and Galbaransingh in exchange for giving Northern Construction Ltd a contract for the airport project. Galbaransingh was the company’s chairman.

John and Galbaransingh were also accused of giving the former prime minister money as an inducement or reward in relation to the project. The four were charged in 2005.

The $1.6 billion airport project was commissioned under the United National Congress (UNC) administration, which governed between 1995 and 2001.

In September 1996, Panday appointed a task force to accelerate the project, which included John and Galbaransingh.

The four were charged during the term of the Patrick Manning-led PNM government, which won the 2001 general election.

Three other corruption cases arising out of the project, involving bid-rigging, kickbacks, bid inflation and fraud, are still awaiting trial.

On March 6, Gaspard told Mohammed, “…Having regard to the fact that several key witnesses have now become unavailable and bearing in mind…my guiding yardsticks, those being whether or not in the circumstances to prosecute this matter or in the prosecution of this matter there will be a fair prospect of conviction and whether to prosecute this matter, if on the evidence, there is a fair prospect of conviction such that prosecution will be in the public interest, I have decided to go no further with this matter.”

In a Sunday Newsday interview, Panday, 89, said while he is relieved that the charges have finally been dismissed, it has not yet sunk in.

But he stressed the matter has taken a severe toll on him and his family.

“This has been hanging over my head for the last 18 years and it has now been removed. So there is a feeling of great relief. But it was hanging over my head, I had to re-orient my whole life because I did not know what was going to happen. And so I lived in a state of utter torment, I would say, for 18 years,” he said by phone from his Duncan Village, San Fernando home.

The former UNC political leader said during that time he lived in virtual paralysis.

“You don’t know what is being done. You don’t know if they are planning new things. So you really live in a state of confusion and doubt about what will happen to your life. And so it becomes very difficult to plan anything.

“It was like having tonnes of bricks on your shoulders. That is how you felt. You are always uncertain not knowing what is going to happen and that makes it so difficult to plan your life.”

Now that the allegations have all “gone away with the wind,” he said, “I now have to re-orient my life and begin to do the things I always wanted to do.”

But the former Couva North MP, who turns 90 on May 25, admitted he has no idea what his life will look like, at least in the foreseeable future.

He said over the past few years he has been grappling with a series of medical conditions that have weakened his capacity to do certain types of activity.

“It is a tragedy, because I am now approaching 90 years, and therefore I do not have the strength that I would have had over the last 18 years. So I have got to rethink my whole life now as to what I will do from here on.”

Pressed on his immediate plans, Panday said, “Everything is still new. It has to rub off for a while.”

A former president general of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers' Trade Union before transitioning fully into politics in the 1960s, Panday said he would have loved to continue his “work of struggle for the poor, helpless and homeless.

“That is the kind of struggle for which I have been engaged. But if this thing was not hanging over my head, I would have continued in that way.”

The father of four believes the core function of any government is protecting the life of its people.

“After security, you should have a society in which you provide for the poor and the homeless and sick. There are a lot of things that should be done, but the first thing is security of the person, and after that to ensure that there is food, clothes and shelter for people in the society.”

Panday said his family has not yet celebrated the case’s dismissal, partly because the matter was heard virtually.

“So there was no home to come home to. There wasn’t a physical appearance in court. So there was no coming home to celebrate.”

He said, though, he has been inundated with phone calls from family, friends, well-wishers and former colleagues and constituents.

“A lot of people have been calling and congratulating me, hoping that I am feeling well, and I am eternally grateful.”

But he said the pain of the past 18 years cuts deep.

Panday said he will never forget his wife’s emotional state when the police came to their home to arrest her.

“It was terrible. In fact, something that has not been related is that when the police came to arrest my wife, she was in the house and she had locked herself in the room and they literally terrorised her. When I came home, I found her shaking.”

Panday said while he can’t “get rid of this feeling which has been hanging over our heads for so long,” he must think about the future and “what am I going to do now with the little life that I have left.”

Asked what he believes will be the citizenry’s takeaway from his 18-year ordeal, he said, “That is going to be for the country to decide. I really don’t know. I suppose some will agree and some won’t. But that is TT.”

Will the episode overshadow his legacy as a trade unionist, politician and prime minister? Panday quipped, “I don’t determine my legacy. My legacy is determined by the reporters.

"Remember the fight I had with a so-called person in the media where I said that the media is not free to publish lies, half-truths and innuendoes? I had a big fight with a certain person over that.”

But on a serious note, he said, “My legacy is going to be determined by those who come after me. Some would find that I have done well. Some will find I have not done well. Some will find that I have done certain things bad(ly). Some will find that I have done certain things (well).

"It depends upon the future generation, really.”

Still, Panday does not believe he will be remembered after he has passed on.

“The moment I am gone, everyone is going to forget. That is life, c'est la vie.”

He used late civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi as examples.

“All of these people lived and did great things in the world, tremendous work, but they are really forgotten. I won’t be different.”

In the meantime, how does he plan to celebrate his 90th birthday?

“I have not yet made up my mind. I was thinking about getting the family together for some kind of celebration, because I don’t know how long I will last. But I am not sure what it is going to look like.”


"Panday: Piarco charge tormented my life"

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