Arrested Cubans to spend weekend in custody

Seventy-eight Cuban asylum seekers accused of engaging in an illegal protest in front of the United Nations building in Port-of-Spain yesterday, are expected to spend the weekend on remand.

While they were each granted $5,000 bail when they appeared before Magistrate Sanara Toon-McQuilkin in the Port-of-Spain Magistrate's Court yesterday evening, none were able to access it as court staff had already left work by the time their court appearance was completed after 5 pm. 

Even if they had been granted bail earlier yesterday afternoon, it would have still been difficult for them to access bail as each requires a separate T&T citizen to agree to stand as surety for their bail. 

The group which included almost two dozen women were detained at the Immigration Detention Centre in Aprio. 

The large group's court appearance caused chaos at the courthouse as police officers only brought them to court around 3 pm.

It took well over an hour before they were processed and brought before Toon-McQulkin. 

Each was charged under Section 64 of the Summary Offences Act with obstructing the free passageway along Chancery Lane in Port-of-Spain.

The offence carries a $200 fine and up to a month in prison.

They all pleaded not guilty. 

With the aid of a Spanish translator, Toon-McQuilkin was able to expedite the hearing by reading the charges to the batches of persons and then taking their not guilty pleas, as opposed to reading the charges individually as is traditionally done in cases with multiple accused persons. 

At the start of the hearing, police prosecutors requested to amend a clerical error on the charge documents. It was not opposed by the group's lawyers and was allowed by Toon-McQuilkin, who noted that it would not prejudice them. 

Police prosecutors also objected to bail as they pointed out that they were all foreigners, who were not employed and did not have fixed places of abode. 

In his bail application, the group's lawyer Wendell Louis noted that the charge was minor. 

"The position of these people is well known. They are running from political persecution and oppression," he said as he claimed that his clients intend to challenge the charge. 

During the hearing, Toon-McQuilkin also instructed prosecutors to ensure that they are ready to begin the case by the end of November. 

In September, Toon-McQuilkin dismissed similar charges against eight of the asylum seekers after police officers were not ready to proceed when the case was listed for trial. 

Some of that group, who were charged for a protest, last year, were also arrested and charged for yesterday's protest. 

The asylum seekers were also represented by Katrina Bharath and Satesh Emrit. 

- by Derek Achong