GRENADA – Supporters of the main opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) staged protest outside the Parliament building on Monday as the party called on the Grenada government to withdraw a controversial piece of legislation it said would infringe upon the rights of citizens.
The Keith Mitchell government has withdrawn the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Control Bill 2020 that was scheduled to be debated on Wednesday. Instead, it said there would be further consultations with stakeholders on the measures that the government said are necessary to help stem the spread of the virus that has infected 23 people here. The ruling New National Party (NNP) controls all 15 seats in the Parliament.
NDP leader, Franka Bernardine, told reporters that the proposed legislation “is oppressive” while the party’s general secretary, Glen Noel, said while the government has indicated it would not be debating the measure now, it has not given an undertaken to completely withdraw the bill.
“We are here simply as a people, and let me make it clear that this gathering…is bipartisan because we are here, the youth movement is here, there are people from the trade unions and there are just concern citizens here,” he said.
“We are all affected by this bill. We are threatened by the intention to pass this bill that seems to be a gross attempt to infringe upon the civil liberties and the rights and freedoms of our people.
‘We don’t think that this bill is necessary, we believe we have sufficient laws that can take care of the current situation. We believe that putting emergency powers in such a reckless government hands for a complete year is unconstitutional and dangerous and therefore we are here to take a stand and to demonstrate our position to get government to withdraw the bill,” Noel told reporters.
The Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Control Bill, 2020 seeks to regulate the containment of the spread of the coronavirus here “in the interests of public safety, public order, and public health and for the maintenance of a substantial portion of the community and supplies and services essential to the life of the community of the State of Grenada”.
The proposed legislation would also provide for a maximum penalty of EC$25,000 (One EC dollar=US$0.37 cents) in a magistrate court for any person, found guilty of violating any section of the law.
A government statement said that the legislation had been drafted “after nearly four months of managing the SARS-CoV-2 National crisis, and the continuous examination of the medical and scientific information, as well as the experience of the management of the emergency on the ground.
There was a strong police presence at the Parliament building and the protestors, some of whom were wearing masks as part of the protocols governing the virus, were only allowed in the carpark area.
President of the Technical and Allied Workers Union (TAWU), Andre Lewis, who also represents the labour movement in the Senate, said that while the Grenada Trade Union Council (GTUC) recognises the need for legal management of the pandemic, it is objecting to the bill in its current format.
“It’s quite necessary to have some law to manage the unknown but we have deep concern,” said Lewis, noting that the proposed legislation gives the police the authority to arrest without a warrant as well as providing the Minister with various powers.
“We are here simply because we have deep concerns with certain aspects of the bill,” he said, adding “certainly on the basis of what we have seen we can confidentially say the unlimited powers of the police are of deep concern, arbitrary entry without a warrant.
“The need for a warrant in our society is to give discretion to someone that is trained at a particular level where you have to make a case to convince that there is a need for it in order to enter someone premises,” Noel said.
“Then there is the aspect of the powers of the ministers who can change a schedule at any time. This does not send a very good signal. The question of acquisition of property is another thing and I am trying to understand what the connection between that is and COVID. I am not saying that there isn’t, but give us an opportunity for you to explain what it is you are trying to achieve,” he said.
On Tuesday, the GTUC issued a statement questioning the questions the intention of the government in “advancing such a Bill at this time.
“The fact that it sought, among other things to give unlimited powers to the coercive arm of the State, the Police Force, to enter any premises without a warrant is deep cause for concern,” the GTUC said.
But, Attorney General Darshan Ramdhanni, speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, had defended the proposed legislation, saying that is less stringent than the current Emergency Powers regulations under which Grenada is now functioning.
Ramdhanni told reporters at the end of the weekly Cabinet meeting that the decision to get parliamentary approval is to stop the weekly Cabinet meeting repealing of the emergency regulations and allow for members of the legislature to approve legal guidance based on advice from science.
“When you look at the present regulations and you look at the provisions in this present regulation and you look at this draft bill, you will realise that the draft is actually substantially identical to the regulations expect that it actually relaxes one or two of the measures in the regulations,” he told the weekly post-Cabinet briefing.
“Our Government is making decision based on feedback, based on decision coming from the medical and scientific community, based on an analyses of the rest of the world and having regards for the present regulations that are in place the Government felt it necessary that we can go to parliament,” said Ramdhanni.
The government has said that the bill will be the subject of public consultations with various interest groups including the Grenada Bar Association (GBA).
“Given the anxiety and agitation which this Bill has already caused to the public, at a time of unprecedented national anxiety and stress, the government of Grenada must decide whether the message now being carried by the Attorney-General is in the interest of the public which has legitimate reasons to be concerned about the content and implications of this Bill,” the GBA said in a statement on Monday.