ROSEAU, Dominica – A magistrate has set July 8 as the date for the start of a case against Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and 14 other members of his ruling Dominica Labour Party (DLP).
Skerrit and his co-accused all pleaded not guilty last Thursday when they appeared in the Roseau Magistrate Court on a charge of treating.
Last month, the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) dismissed an appeal filed by Skerrit and other DLP candidates who were successful in the 2014 general elections, reinstating complaints filed against them for the charge of treating.
Treating refers to directly or indirectly providing food, drink or entertainment to a person, during or after an election, with the aim of corruptly influencing that person’s vote. The law in Dominica is that a person convicted of treating is disqualified from sitting in the House of Assembly and cannot run for elections for seven years.
According to the charge read out in the court, in the run-up to the December 8, 2014, general election, the government ministers did work together to corruptly influence the results of the election by engaging in the unlawful act of treating by hosting two free concerts at the Windsor Park Sports Stadium.
The first event was held on November 28, 2014, and featured three-time Grammy award winner and international gospel star, Donnie McClurkin whilst the second event was held on December 6, 2014, featuring Morgan Heritage, which is said to have corruptly influenced the Dominican electorates to vote for the candidates of the DLP, contrary to Dominica’s House of Assembly Election Act.
The DLP won the election by a 15-6 margin, and in its ruling the CCJ dismissed the appeal and affirmed the order of the Court of Appeal, reinstating the Magistrate’s summonses for the appellants to appear to answer the election charge of treating.
It held that summary proceedings for treating were not brought to determine the validity of someone’s membership to the House of Assembly; rather, they were brought to vindicate the criminal law, or in other words, to try someone accused of committing the offence of treating.
When the matter came up for hearing, one of the complainants, Mervin Jno Baptiste, withdrew his complaint making it clear that he was not paid or threatened but members of his family were threatened.
“Nobody personally threatened me but based on what my family went through, I came to this decision,” he told the presiding Magistrate, Bernard Pacquette, who agreed to the request.
The Court also upheld a request by the defence for an application for the third complaint in the name of Antoine Defoe to be struck out as the complaint is now deceased.
This application was granted by the magistrate for want of prosecution.
The magistrate also indicated that he had received correspondence from the Antigua-based Queen Counsel, Justin Simon, who is representing the third plaintiff, Edingcot St Valle, indicating that he was unable to be present for the matter and as such requested an adjournment.
But Barbados-based Queen’s Counsel (QC), Andrew Pilgrim objected to this request and asked that the matter be struck out.
“My clients had to make arrangements to be here today, and whilst it is not about me and my three PCR tests and my suffering in isolation, they have had to go through considerable inconvenience. This case is seven years old and we have asked for disclosure but our request has been ignored. Based on the claimant’s request, this court’s time has no meaning,” he argued.
He told the court that the four grounds for his objection included, the claimant’s refusal to give disclosure despite the defence’s “countless” requests. He also posited that since the claimant requested a date for the matter to be heard in the magistrate court, “his excuse that his attorney is not present ought not to be supported.”
The Queen’s Counsel further stated that the fact that the defendants, at their own expense, made arrangements to answer the charge on the date set by the court wherein abandoning all work and family commitment and the letter from Simon does not address the court and gives no reason for his unpreparedness for the trial and failure to be at court, are grounds for dismissal.
But attorney Ronald Charles, who was holding for Simon, said he was astonished by the request.
He told the court that the summon date is set for case management based on the defendants’ plea. Following this, he noted that the court set a date for disclosure and trial.
“If this application was made after a date set for trial and disclosure and the complaints did not comply with the court’s request I would be in full support of this application. But the court has to set a date for disclosure so the defence request for disclosure prior to the matter reaching the court is irrelevant,” Charles said.
In his ruling, Pacquette described the application for dismissal as “premature” as it is the first time that the matter is before the court.
“The normal practise of this court is to take the plea of the defendants and set a date for trial and disclosure. The court is bound by this precedent,” he said.
He added that given the position of some of the defendants they may be excused for future appearances until they are summoned as the matter can be ex-parte.
Disclosure is ordered for June 8 whilst the trial is set to commence on July 8.