PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Sept 20, CMC –Former prime minister Basdeo Panday said he had no prior knowledge of a coup by members of the radical Jamaat-al Muslimeen group in 1990 and said the phrase “wake me up when it is over” was meant to be a joke with his wife, Oma.
Panday, who resumes his testimony Friday before a Commission of Inquiry into the failed July 27, 1990 coup against the then ANR Robinson government, blamed a lapse by the security forces, growing disenchantment against the government for the reasons behind the insurrection.
Panday told the Commission, which is being chaired by prominent Barbadian jurist Sir David Simmons, that he had on Friday (July) 27, 1990 attended Parliament as he had been doing since after having open-heart surgery in London on December 24, 1989.
“I returned to Trinidad in mid-January 1990 but was unable to attend Parliament for some time, until March, because I was recuperating from the surgery,” Panday said.
He told the Commission that he would normally leave the Parliament building around the tea-break in mid afternoon in order to take his medication and rest.
The former prime minister then went on to explain the phrase “wake we up when it is over” telling the Commission “wives have a habit of waking you for the least important things but she insisted, telling me, ‘Get up, get up,’ and when I refused she said, ‘Abu Bakr is taking over the country,’”
Panday said. He believed his wife was joking, and told her, “When it finish, wake me up.”
He said the remark has been often misconstrued.
I didn’t believe there was anyone so dunce, so thick, so stupid, as to believe this statement made in those circumstances could by the widest stretch of the imagination to constitute my knowledge and implication in this attempted coup,” Panday said.
He also denied claims that he was working with the Jamaat to overthrow the government and that he had had 17 black diplomatic passports delivered to the Muslim leader Yasin Abu Bakr shortly before the coup.
At least 24 people, including one government legislator, Leo Des Vignes, were killed when Yasin Abu Bakr led 114 members of his Muslim group in coordinated attacks on the Parliament and the Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) station in his attempt to overthrow the then ruling National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) administration on July 27, 1990.
Bakr later appeared on television and announced that the government had been overthrown, and that he was negotiating with the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force. He called for calm, and said that there should be no looting.
After six days of negotiation, the insurgents surrendered on August 1, and were taken into custody. They were tried for treason, but the Court of Appeal upheld the amnesty offered to secure their surrender, and they were released. The London-based Privy Council, the country’s highest court, later invalidated the amnesty, but the Muslimeen members were not re-arrested.
Panday acknowledged he and then prime minister Robinson disagreed on several occasions including on how to deal with racism in the country.
Asked why he did no initiate an investigation into the coup when he headed a government here, Panday told the Commission that there were more important factors to focus on, like rebuilding infrastructure and creating employment.
“We decided as a government that the most important thing was to deal with the problems facing the people,” he said. He said the most bothersome problem was crime and it was lowest under the UNC government in 20 years. “It (an enquiry) did not even cross my mind,” he said.
Meanwhile, a summons has been issued Bakr to appear before the Commission.
Lead attorney to the Commission, Avory Sinanan, SC, said the summons was issued to Bakr on September 9.
“We hope he (Bakr) would attend to give his evidence as he was one of the key players on what transpired on July 1990,” Sinanan said, acknowledging that issuing a summons cannot force Bakr to attend the enquiry nor could he be jailed for failure to do so.
Bakr has in the past refused to testify before the Commission citing an ongoing case against him in the High Court. But earlier this year, he said that he would only appear if he is paid to provide evidence.
Bakr, 71, told radio listeners the authorities must make payment to him in just the same manner as payment is being made to members of the Commission.
“If you want to take my time, you paying Simmons and the other people for their time and if you want to take my time you have to pay me equally for my time because with me they would not exist.
“Had I not been the author of this book they would have anything to read,” he said, insisting “yes I have to be paid equally with Mr. Simmons otherwise Mr. Simmons would not exist without me.