Trinidad panel taking fresh look at 1990 uprising

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) — The Muslim cleric who led a small army that stormed Trinidad & Tobago’s parliament in a blaze of gunfire is a free man. Never convicted of any charges, he cheerfully presides over a mosque and school complex in the country’s bustling capital and shares time among his four wives, the maximum Islam allows.

Yasin Abu Bakr and his followers were jailed for two years after the 1990 attempt to overthrow the government of one of the Caribbean’s most prosperous countries. But they were freed under an amnesty and attempts to prosecute them failed even though 24 people were killed. More than 50 people were taken hostage, including the prime minister, who was bound and shot in the leg.

After years of lingering questions about the attempted coup by Bakr and 113 armed rebels, a commission appointed by the government in 2010 has been taking a fresh look into the only Islamic revolt in the Western Hemisphere. The commission has held more than a dozen sessions over three years in an effort to understand better how and why the violent upheaval occurred. But the panel has no subpoena power and the findings are unlikely to lead to any arrests.

And Bakr isn’t hurrying to provide any answers.

The towering 72-year-old, who dresses in a white robe and skullcap, recently gave The Associated Press a rare interview. Bakr said he hasn’t decided if he’ll testify before the five-member commission, which is expected to finish collecting testimony by year’s end. He said the panel won’t learn anything important unless he agrees to help.

“I am the architect; I am the leader of the coup,” Bakr told the AP at the Jamaat al Muslimeen group’s compound, where youngsters carried their books from a two-story school and a group of men chatted outside a spacious domed mosque. “I know everything that happened. If I don’t testify to all the things that happened everybody is just guessing.”

Against this backdrop, Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Trinidad Tuesday for trade and security talks with Prime Minister Kamala Kamla Persad-Bissessar and other Caribbean politicians. The commission’s work is not on the agenda, even though the failed rebellion by the Islamic group still looms large for the region in a post 9-11 world.

For some people in Trinidad, Bakr’s group remains a painful reminder of the deadly uprising that staggered the Caribbean country’s sense of itself as an easygoing land of calypso, cricket and British-style democracy.

“We need to unearth all the facts if only from the point of view of recording history, but perhaps we can also suss out any strategic weaknesses that may still remain,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran, who was held hostage on the first day of the coup attempt launched July 27, 1990, and who was instrumental in launching the inquiry.

There is no evidence linking Bakr and his group of mostly black converts to Islam to international terrorism. U.S. authorities scrutinized the group after discovering a failed 2007 plot to blow up jet fuel tanks at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Federal investigators reported that a Trinidadian imam and a U.S. citizen from Guyana who were convicted in the case had earlier visited Jamaat’s Trinidad compound, but no definitive connection was found.

Some researchers say that Islam isn’t the group’s central focus.

Jamaat “may be Islamist in its pedigree in that it relied and continues in some respect to use Islamic discourse and symbols … but it was always more of a revolutionary, pan-Africanist movement than anything else,” said Chris Zambelis, a Washington-based risk management consultant who specializes in the Middle East but has researched Jamaat and interviewed members in Trinidad.

Bakr’s reasons for attempting to take over the government have never been fully clear.

A former policeman who converted to Islam while living in Canada and who drew followers mainly among poor urban blacks in Trinidad’s slums, Bakr has blamed the islands’ government in the past for increasing hardship after world oil prices collapsed in the 1980s. He told AP that he also blamed then-Prime Minister Arthur N.R. Robinson’s administration for the slaying of a female police constable who he insists had witnessed a cocaine transaction involving a government minister. The group was also in a dispute with the government over the compound’s land.

Whatever Bakr’s motivation, the rebellion in the resource-rich republic off Venezuela’s coast was among the more bizarre events in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean.

It started with a car bomb that gutted a police station near parliament, and continued with the takeover of the legislature.

After the rebels had held Robinson and others hostage for six days, officials promised the insurgents amnesty, then immediately arrested them when they surrendered. Trinidad’s High Court later upheld the amnesty on the grounds that Jamaat members were the beneficiaries of a presidential pardon, even though the state argued it was made under duress. Shocking many, Bakr and his followers were freed after two years in lockup and never re-arrested.

Among those killed were lawmaker Leo Des Vignes, a policeman, and security guards. Others died during clashes between security forces and looting mobs that swarmed commercial districts to load up on television sets and other consumer items. Scores were wounded and blocks burned.

Political analysts believe Jamaat members have escaped convictions in part because from the 1980s until at least 2002 they were hired by both major political parties to get out the vote for their factions during elections in poor, politically contested communities. Some experts believe Jamaat currently counts just a few hundred members.

“All the parties used the Jamaat, all,” said Selwyn Ryan, a leading Trinidadian political scientist who wrote about the siege in his book “The Muslimeen Grab for Power.”

Zambelis, the Washington-based analyst, said Bakr managed to carve out an enduring niche for himself and his movement that cut across political party lines. “I also think that Jamaat al Muslimeen’s ties to criminality may also be playing a role in its longevity and survivability over the years,” he said.

Jamaat members have been charged with murders, kidnappings, and gun and drug smuggling but few have been convicted. In 2005, one man who took part in the failed coup was sentenced to more than 12 years in a U.S. prison for trying to smuggle guns into the country from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Bakr himself was acquitted in Trinidad in 2006 on charges of conspiracy to murder two former Jamaat members. Also in 2006, Trinidadian prosecutors dropped weapon charges against Bakr after authorities raided the compound, bulldozed his office and seized a rifle, hand grenade and 500 rounds of ammunition. He currently is fighting sedition charges related to a sermon he gave in 2005.

The imam has rejected charges that his group engages in criminal activities and describes Jamaat as solely a religious and charitable organization.

Bridget Brereton, an emeritus professor of history at Trinidad’s campus of the University of the West Indies, said she’s hopeful the commission can provide the full truth about the coup attempt, which she believes has contributed to the country’s ongoing problems with gang violence and crimes committed with guns.

“It introduced the notion of violent, extremist behavior, and helped set the tone for the spiraling murder and crime rate,” Brereton said.

Commission members, led by Barbadian jurist David Simmons, said they will not comment until the probe ends.

Although some Trinidadians believe the inquiry into long ago events is a waste of time, others wonder why it took the government so long to examine the crisis. “In the U.S., something like this would have been interrogated immediately because it’s a matter of record. But in societies such as this a lot of things go a-begging,” said Ryan, the political scientist.

For his part, Bakr asserts that the armed uprising against what he terms Trinidad’s “corrupt government” was preordained.

“I am not any mastermind because I led the coup, nor am I any brilliant strategist or nothing. It has nothing to do with that,” Bakr told the AP. “I mean, God wanted some justice in this matter and he just took the people who were best, just 114 of us.”

___

David McFadden on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dmcfadd

blog comments powered by Disqus