Opposition Leader Godwin Friday has condemned last Friday’s arrest of four opposition activists who were kept in custody overnight on Thursday, before a magistrate granted them bail in their own recognisance.
He said on his weekly radio programme on NICE Radio, on Monday, that police must recognise that they have a duty to protect protestors in the same way that they respond to victims of criminal offences.
“And there are many, many offenses, as you will know, that have been committed in this country,” Friday said on “New Times”, mentioning the rampant gun violence in St. Vincent and Grenadines, which has recorded nine homicides so far this year.
“You have farmers who when their plantain ripe somebody can cut it and they can’t complain to the police or if they complain, there’s no recourse. You have people’s animals that being stolen and sold by persons who know nothing about how those animals get fed except to watch them from day to day to decide when to thief them.”
Friday said these are the police should be trying to reassure people about and “not just going around town and harassing people who are exercising our democratic rights, picking up people who are walking around town selling something and throwing it away.”
He was apparently referring to recent efforts by the police to remove vendors by the sidewalk by confiscating their goods and furniture.
The opposition leader said that he, as well as his predecessor, Arnhim Eustace, has spoken about the “the erosion of our democratic rights”.
On Friday, at the Kingstown Magistrate’s Court, Robert “Patches” Knights-King, Luzette King, Adriana King and John Mofford each pleaded not guilty to a charge that on Thursday, Feb. 23, at Kingstown, they each failed to comply with the instructions of Roycel Davis, Corporal of Police 471, when instructed to disperse from “an unlawfully held public meeting which was held within 200 yards of the Court House building when the House of Assembly was sitting”, contrary to Section 10(3)(a) of the Public Order Act.
Senior Magistrate Rickie Burnett, after hearing a bail application by defence counsel Kay-Bacchus-Baptiste, granted each accused bail in their own recognisance in the sum of EC$2,000 and ordered them to return to court on May 23 for trial.
The New Democratic Party, of which Friday is president, issued a statement on the weekend condemning the arrests as the “continued weaponisation of the police” by the Unity Labour Party government against its political opponents.
The NDP said the arrests are “an attack on democracy and a grievous misuse of the police force”.
Friday, who is also NDP president, said the political system in SVG is “designed to accommodate, to expect and to respect” protest.
“That’s what democracy is all about,” Friday said adding that the NDP rejects as something that no one in the country should tolerate the notion that holding up a placard outside Parliament is illegal
The opposition leader said the issue is not about the individuals.
“They represent the right that every citizen in this country has to go out and to make their voices heard,” he said, adding that people can do this in a peaceful protest or demonstration.
He said that based on the charge, the government is saying the protesters were involved in an unlawful public meeting.
“Well, I was at the Parliament. I didn’t see any meeting going in. I didn’t see any meeting coming out. I don’t know where the meeting was, whether it took place in between,” Friday said.
“But that sounds to me like it’s all some sort of another attempt to suppress the rights of those people who are exercising their democratic right rather than being there to support them and to ensure that nobody takes advantage of them as they exercise their democratic rights.”
He said that as long as the people are exercising their rights peacefully, the police have no reasonable cause to arrest or ill treat them.
“Come on! what is happening in St. Vincent and the Grenadines? Where are we now on this sliding scale on the downward slope from democratic and open society to one that is going towards autocracy in St. Vincent and the Grenadines?
“Who is our model now? Who is this present government taking their examples from as to how you conduct the affairs of state in relation to the people of the country? Are they going to the countries with the worst examples in Central America and South America, rather than trying to espouse, to reach the better examples of mature democracies which we ought to be aiming to do where the voice of the people is an essential part of that process?” Friday said.
He said he has always said that when he goes to Parliament to represent the people, he feels honoured “because the people have elected me in my constituency and my colleagues to go to the Parliament to represent them.
“That doesn’t mean that they have abandoned their own voices where they have said, ‘Listen, you speak for me and then I will shut up.’”
The opposition leader said that rather, the people are saying that their MP should represent them in Parliament.
“What it means is that they say in that forum, you represent me but when I choose to represent myself, which is by going out in public and stating my opinion, which is the only real forum that they have to make their voices heard clearly, and unequivocally, when they choose to do so, then no one should interrupt them out, interfere with them in exercising that right.”
Friday noted the NDP’s statement condemning the arrest.
“… those four persons who are arrested and charged, when their rights are diminished, the rights of every single person in St. Vincent and Grenadines are also diminished by that degree, because those rights are indivisible. Those persons were just exercising them on that day.”
He said those right belong to every Vincentian.
“So, when it’s taken away, that diminishing of those rights affects all of us, whether we choose to accept it or not. That is a fact. And so, we must all condemn it and urge that the authorities exercise better judgment in terms of how they approach persons who are exercising their democratic, right, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Friday said.
He said everyone “must see what is happening in this country as a slide towards autocracy, a diminishing of our democracy and eroding of the rights and privileges that we have enjoyed as a good society. And taking us backward in the wrong direction.”
The opposition leader noted that in August 2021 police officers raided the homes of 10 opposition supporters and other activists.
“And so many of these instances turned out to be just simply police harassing people exercising their democratic right. We can’t tolerate this. It is time for us as a country to say enough is enough,” Friday said.
He said the only way to send this message is to change the government “because they have been so emboldened because they feel that the people in this country are afraid of the government, that they are afraid of Ralph Gonsalves and the ULP, that they are afraid of the police, of the weaponising of the police that has been indicated by the police coming out and stopping people from demonstrating and picketing and doing their rights, the police must not do this”.