On February 11, 2019, the much anticipated and often delayed trial of the petitions challenging returns in the constituencies of Central Leeward and North Windward in the 2015 General Elections began.
The trial was held at a specially constituted courtroom located in the conference room on the third floor of the National Insurance Services (NIS) building in Kingstown. The New Democratic Party (NDP) publicly objected to the use of this venue as it restricted public access to the trial. The presiding judge at the trial was Justice Stanley John of Trinidad and Tobago who, following the recusal of Justice Esco Henry, was specially appointed to hear the matter.
After seven days of testimony by witnesses called by the Petitioners Mr. Benjamin Exeter of Central Leeward constituency and Mr. Lauron Baptiste of North Windward constituency and by the Respondents, the trial concluded on Tuesday, February 19, 2019.
Our lawyers must now prepare written submissions which are to be filed with the Court by February 28, 2019. They then return to Court on March 6, 2019 to make oral submissions to the Judge. There, they will explain clearly why the evidence and law support a decision in favor of Ben Exeter and Lauron Baptiste. The entire nation should take note of these proceedings and as many as can make it to the courtroom on March 6th, must do so and witness our democracy on trial.
The trial vindicated the outcry made by the NDP following the 2015 general elections. In witness statements and cross-examination testimony, compelling evidence was given by the witnesses for the Petitioners concerning numerous serious irregularities and illegal practices that took place in the 2015 general elections. Evidence given by Respondents’ witnesses also supported the claims of irregularities and unlawful practices by election officials on election day and at the final count and purported final count.
For example, there was evidence showing that the ballot papers used for voting did not conform in fundamental ways to the requirements of the law and that, when they were used at the polls, it resulted in their mutilation and in the absence or improper placement of the official mark and initials of the presiding officer on them.
When cross-examined by the Petitioners’ lawyers, Queen’s Counsel Stanley “Stalky” John and Mr. Keith Scotland, witnesses for the Respondents also gave evidence that supported the Petitioners’ claim that the Presiding Officer’s official mark and initials that were required by law to be on each ballot counted were wrongly placed on the counterfoils and were entirely missing from ballots. Moreover, notwithstanding this fatal flaw, those ballots were counted as though they were legal ballots.
Indeed, evidence given at the trial confirmed that in at least one polling station in Central Leeward, all the ballots did not have the official mark and initials of the presiding officer on them and were, therefore, illegal. Yet, they were counted as though they were legal ballots!
Evidence given at the trial also confirmed, among other things, that the Petitioners’ complaint that plastic ballot boxes with plastic ties to hold the lids in place were used for voting instead of the boxes with secure locks that are required by the Representation of the People Act, our election law. A Respondent’s witness also confirmed that in North Windward all the Form 16s and also other essential notes of the Returning Officer needed to substantiate the results in North Windward were missing and apparently could not be found. Yet, the final result of the poll was determined and declared.
The NDP has consistently raised these and other serious matters concerning our elections process. The trial of the petitions has again highlighted our concerns. It has shown that the outcry we raised following the 2015 general elections was not frivolous as some in the ULP have claimed but was serious and backed up by facts and evidence.
We continue to call for immediate fresh elections and for reform of our country’s elections practices and processes. This includes the establishment of an independent electoral commission to oversee our elections. There must also be strict adherence to the election laws.
These petitions have clearly shown the urgent need for changes before the next election. We cannot go into another election knowing that the process is seriously flawed and that the results cannot be trusted to be the true reflection of the will of the people. If we are to live up to the claim of being a modern democracy, we cannot fail to act. The people demand it and the NDP, as always, supports the wishes of the people of SVG.
In the meantime, the New Democratic Party applauds the hard work and tremendous skill of the entire legal team who represented the Petitioners. The entire nation owes them a debt of gratitude. Their work has shown us what it takes to ensure free and fair elections in SVG and how hard we must sometimes work to get it done.
We also salute the courage and fortitude of the witnesses who, despite repeated delays and various obstacles, came to court and gave their evidence for the Petitioners as their consciences dictated. This, too, is national service!
Finally, having truthfully presented their cases, the Petitioners await the decision of the Judge. They have bravely and resolutely done their part for their constituents and for the nation.
Apart from highlighting certain aspects of the evidence above, the NDP has taken the official position and has issued to all its spokespeople a directive regarding the propriety of refraining from commenting on the merits of the trial and the judicial officials, pending delivery of the judgment.
As we have done over the three years of this matter, all of us in the NDP await the decision of the Judge with vigilance and undaunted determination. While we have worked diligently and continue to hope for a favorable outcome, the decision is entirely in the hands of the Judge who presided over the trial. He has said that it will be given in Court at 10:00a.m. on March 21, 2019. We are, however, cognizant that whichever side prevails, this matter will be finally determined by the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal.