KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – The searching of persons travelling to the Grenadines is not because of a “geographical bias” against that part of this multi-island nation, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves told Parliament yesterday.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of National Security, said that the police conduct searches based on the information they have.
“The law enforcement authorities in this country address the searching of passengers, wherever they are travelling, upon the intelligence they have received in relation to certain matter,” he said in response to a question from Northern Grenadines representative, Dr. Godwin Friday.
Friday wanted to know what was “the policy concerning searching of passengers travelling from the mainland to the Grenadines via the Grenadines Wharf at Kingstown; and why are passengers regularly subjected to search of their belongings at the wharf”.
Gonsalves said that a meeting of tourism stakeholders in Bequia — in response to a spate of crime against visitors last year — requested that the government “institute an enhanced regime of searching because people were missing goods and it’s easy when they move from the Grenadines coming up to the mainland.”
He said that while the Minister of Tourism and the Commissioners of Police told him of the meeting’s request, he does not have to request the police chief to institute security measures at the nation’s ports.
“They do it as their security circumstances demand and the intelligence tell them,” Gonsalves said,
“And I want to say this: given the history of relations … because the Northern Grenadines, for instance, historically has supported the New Democratic Party, there is a feeling that if they are searched … that it is something political.
“I just want to say this: most of the persons who are searched are actually persons from mainland St. Vincent … as distinct from Bequia or the Grenadines,” he said, noting that many residents of St. Vincent, some of whom have relocated to Bequia, travel frequently between the islands.
“So I want to make that issue clear. To the extent that we have searches anywhere, it’s nothing to do with any geographic bias, nothing to do with any consideration other than the law enforcement authorities are interested in dealing with a security problem.”
Last year, 11 arrests were made with seizure of illegal drugs at the Grenadines Wharf, with three arrests so far this year, the last of which was on March 22, Gonsalves said.
“We’ve got to be searching our ports of entry for illegal immigrants and substances. They have easy access; people can come in through the soft under belly in the Southern Grenadines and come up, you know – but also person going down,” he said.
Over the last two years, there were 40 illegal entries in the Grenadines, Gonsalves said.
“Believe me, we are trying to be very careful but we also understand that within the law of the land there are fundamental rights and freedoms of people for their freedom of movement and we have no desire, and the law enforcement authorities have no desire to curb that. Upon intelligence, they make certain checks and I give you that assurance,” Gonsalves said.
But in a supplementary question, Friday said that he did not think anyone would second-guess searches conducted upon intelligence, adding that his question was specifically about searches of persons boarded at the wharf in Kingstown, “where virtually every package is searched as it come through the gate.
“I have watched it and the packages are opened and not resealed and pushed aside and people are getting very upset about it,” Friday said, asking if the security arrangements of which the Prime Minister spoke meant that every package is to be searched.
There is no policy to search every individual crossing or re-passing any part of this country, Gonsalves said in his response.
“But I cannot sit where I am in my office as Minister of National Security when the police may have some form of intelligence to tell them that they must not carry out a search,” Gonsalves said.
Using the case of the police’s periodic stop and search of every vehicle, Gonsalves said, “… sometimes the police know what they are looking for, they don’t even tell me. I don’t need to know unless it is a major national security issues”.
He said that while there is no policy mandating the search of every person travelling to the Grenadines, he could “say to the Commissioner of Police, ‘A Member of Parliament has raised questions as to the extent of searches’ and I will say to the Commissioner, ‘would you review this to see whether these searches are necessary or desirable in all the circumstances?’
“But I don’t want to be put in the position, and I have never done this as Minister of National Security, to tell them to go somewhere and do this or not do that,” Gonsalves said.