Trio in alleged Customs fraud to appear in court today as attorney questions police’s actions

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Attorney Wendel Robinson
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By Shermain Bique-Charles

[email protected]

A local attorney has raised questions about the police’s handling of the arrest and subsequent charges laid against a Customs officer and two brokers accused of being involved in a $3 million at the Customs and Excise Division.

Customs officer Joezine Christian and Customs brokers Rowan Matthew and Foster George were charged last Friday with Conspiracy to Defraud.

Matthew and George were slapped with an additional charge of Obtaining Money by False Pretense while the Customs officer will answer to additional charges, including corruption.

On August 1st, the trio was granted bail by a High Court Judge after they had been kept in a holding cell at the St John’s Police Station for three days, causing one of the accused attorneys Wendel Robinson to question the motive of the police.

Robinson, a former police commissioner is representing George while Andrew O’Kola is representing Christian and Matthew.

Robinson told our newsroom that the St John’s Magistrates Court, which he understood was opened on Saturday, could have granted bail to the individuals but the police embarked on what he called a ‘bogus’ operation to stall their release.

“I had gotten an initial indication that the court was opened to grant bail on Saturday morning but then the police went and executed several search warrants, including on my client. I found it strange because he had already been arrested and charged for those offenses and to execute warrants for firearm and ammunition was bogus because they would have already been charged,” Robinson said

Additionally, Robinson said the lawmen have been investigating the matter of fraud at Customs for over two years, which gave them ample time to execute search warrants.

“I find it very interesting that search warrants were signed off by the Magistrate on the morning when they are supposed to be making bail application there,” Robinson said.

After realizing that the magistrate’s court was not reliable; in this instance, Robinson said his team opted to apply the Constitution’s tenet where a Judge has the authority to grant bail as part of his inherent jurisdiction of the High Court.

“I look at the way in which this situation was handled as nothing short of abuse. The whole idea under the Constitution is not to keep people in custody unnecessarily long. The whole idea about keeping people for 48 hours, and Sundays and public holidays are not counted, had to do with investigations and not just for the sake of keeping them on the weekend. The police went a bit too far,” according to Robinson.

Furthermore, he believes the police’s actions were intentional, especially given the ‘deteriorating’ state of the holding cells at St John’s Police Station.

“Try as they might, the police know the lock-up at St John’s Police Station is no facility for any person in the modern 21st century to be housed overnight. The conditions have been, for decades, deteriorating. As much as they can get persons out of there, especially during these Covid times, the better and more effective policing. There’s no point holding people in unsanitary conditions…,” he added.

Robinson said the police’s behaviour is unconstitutional, unethical, and improper. He believes the police are still leaning on the “old concept of keeping them in custody for the whole of Carnival weekend”.

The former top cop is also concerned about a policy relating to weekend bail which he said appears to have been thrown out the window.

 “In the past, magistrates will take turns and come to St John’s Police Station on Saturday and deal with the issue of bail, but that seems to have dwindled away. I do not know that the legislation or policy had changed but it seems to have gone into disuse,” Robinson said.

As part of the bail conditions, the trio was asked to surrender all their travel documents and report once per week at a police station between 6 am and 9 pm.

It was Prime Minister Gaston Browne who blew the trumpet on the Customs fraud matter when he publicly declared that his signature had been forged on Customs documents while investigations into wider fraud at the division were ongoing.

The prime minister was later accused of interfering with the investigations to protect “his own”.

In fact, at the time, Browne’s efforts to dispel suggestions of his interference in the Customs investigation in which his signature was allegedly forged had been derided by one of his staunchest critics; Leader of the United Progressive Party, Harold Lovell.

There were claims that Browne had instructed the Comptroller of Customs Raju Boddu not to pursue the investigations — an allegation that Boddu denied.

However, Lovell did not believe that admission carried much weight, citing a clear conflict of interest.

“This is very strange and here it is we recognise Mr Boddu’s work under a contract and the person most responsible in deciding whether the contract is renewed or not. If Mr Boddu seeks renewal it is the prime minister who is the Minister of Finance,” Lovell had said.

He was insinuating that Boddu’s statements were questionable since his job relies on his support or nonsupport of the person who approves his contract.

“That is wholly improper … that you are going to call a senior public officer and subject them to that. What did he expect Mr Boddu to say? Would Mr Boddu say, ‘yes sir, you told me not to send the matter to the police’? So, to me, that has very little evidentiary weight. The only weight you can attach to a public servant who is asked a question in the presence of a journalist, ‘did I instruct you?’ — the natural answer is going to be no,” Lovell said.

Lovell went further, saying the act of forgery should have been reported to the police in the first instance. The failure to do so, he claimed, could imply a cover-up.

The October 2019 shooting of Customs officer Cornell Benjamin and the July 2020 murder of high-ranking Customs officer Nigel Christian had brought even more attention to the ongoing investigation.

Benjamin, who was attached to the Enforcement Unit of the Customs and Excise Division at the time, was shot four times in his right leg and once in his left leg.

However, he survived, but reports are that his ability to move about has been severely impacted.

And on the afternoon of July 10th, 2020, Christian was abducted from his McKinnons home, and the 44-year-old’s bullet-riddled body was found in the Thibous area hours later.

Both Customs officers had allegedly worked on the probe and many feared the attacks were a bid to silence them.

Subsequently, four men were arrested for Christian’s murder but only three have been charged to date.

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