Jennifer tells of scary Friday: ANR, Richardson tied together
‘Shoot when lights go off’
Published: Wed, 2011-01-26 21:26
August 1, 1990: Jennifer Johnson leaves the Red House at the end of the five-day seige of Parliament by members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen.
Former Sport and Youth Affairs Minister Jennifer Johnson, was the second high-ranking member of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) Government to give evidence to the commission of enquiry into the July 27, 1990 attempted coup. Johnson was one of two female ministers held hostage during the six-day siege at the Red House. She was questioned yesterday by lead counsel Avery Sinanan SC on day three of the inquiry taking place at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Port-of-Spain. Here is an extract of her testimony. It begins with her description of what was taking place in the House of Representatives after the teabreak, minutes before the Muslimeen entered. She said Minister and MP for Toco-Manzanilla Joseph Toney was contributing to the debate.
Johnson: Well there was a moment of levity because there was just some crosstalk and he (Toney) was asking somebody across the aisle (Oropouche MP Trevor Sudama) ‘Who is your leader?’ and just about that time I heard loud noises and of course there seemed to be a commotion going on and then I heard what sounded like gunshots. At that time we all stood because obviously the gunshots were now in the chamber and I began to smell gunpowder, so I realised that there was an attack of some sort and I looked around and then when we realised it was an attack. Dr Emmanuel (Hosein, then Health Minister), who sat next to me called my name and he said ‘Jenny get down, get down!’ and I went down.
And then there was shooting. You could actually hear the bullets hitting the wall and people screaming and people running in with these guns and they were shooting. Then I heard ‘Allah Allah; and I realised it was an attack by some Muslim group. So we went down on the ground and the attackers came to where I was and I heard them say firstly ‘Where is Selby (Finance Minister)? We want the IMF man, Where is Richardson (National Security Minister)? Where is Robbie (Prime Minister)?’ And they systematically went for those three persons and while that was happening one (attacker) came to me and started to tie my hands behind my back, which was a very painful kind of experience. It was very painful. They went down the entire length of the Parliament Chamber on our side, the side of the Government, and they did that to everyone that was on my side of the Parliament.
Counsel: Were you able to observe whether any members on the other side were also tied up?
Johnson: Well what I observed was that while all the commotion was going on and people were scurrying around and screaming that representative Leo des Vignes was still standing and I was thinking why doesn’t he go down and as I looked again he was down, he was bleeding, that’s what I saw on that side. I didn’t at that time pay much attention to the other side but subsequently I looked and realised that the same things that they were doing on our side of the aisle they were doing on the other side. Mr Richardson and Mr Robinson, they were taken down to the front and they were bound together, I saw that, they tied them together.
Counsel: At that point in time when they were moved, was any of them subjected to any violence?
Johnson: I couldn’t see. I can’t say that at that particular time.
Counsel: So you were telling us that the person ... (Bilal Abdullah) he had indicated to Mr Robinson that he must call the troops off?
Counsel: What happened after that?
Johnson: Mr Robinson objected. He said no that you all are murderers and traitors and ‘I would do no such thing’ and ‘Attack with full force.’ And as soon as he said that I heard shots .
Counsel: Was he speaking into a microphone or some sort of telephonic device?
Johnson: I don’t know. I subsequently learned that he was given some equipment.
Counsel: What happen when Mr Robinson said this?
Johnson: After those defiant statements by Mr Robinson as I said I could remember thinking, speaking to myself. Now we are dead, I told myself. Then suddenly I heard shots. I think I heard more than one and we were all startled and then we heard Mr Robinson groaning, moaning, he was obviously hurt and Mr Dookeran at that point said, ‘We don’t want any bloodshed, let us negotiate.’
Counsel: Who was Mr Dookeran speaking to at that time?
Johnson: Well, I am not sure who he was talking to but those were his words. I think that the negotiations started from that point.
Counsel: While Mr Robinson was groaning, as you say, did the attackers do anything to stop him groaning?
Johnson: Yes, I don’t know the sequence but at some point after that they gagged him because Dr Emmanuel (Hosein) and I were whispering at that time, when we heard him moaning and Dr Emmanuel Hosein was very concerned and I think at that time he was gagged.
Counsel: Was the gag subsequently removed?
Johnson: Yes, I think that Dr Emmanuel Hosein — the doctor in him came out — and he shouted that if you do not remove that gag he is going to die and that you must remove that gag, you must allow him to breathe.
Even though we were captive still and on the ground he was very insistent that the gag be removed.
Counsel: Was it at that point you became aware or informed that Mr Robinson had been shot?
Johnson: Well, nobody came and told us that he was shot. We heard the gunshots and we heard him moaning and we realised that he was shot. Nobody told us.
Counsel: Now you expressed the view, Mrs Johnson, that you formed the impression that the rebels as you call them were well trained. You recall saying that?
Johnson: Yes, yes.
Counsel: Exactly what do you mean by that?
Johnson: Yes, because they seem to be moving with a sort of precision. They seemed to have pre-planned their operation.
Counsel: Their methodology, did it suggest to you that they were militarily trained?
Johnson: I don’t know, I can’t say that. All I can say is that their operation was planned and they knew exactly what they were going to be doing from one stage to the next.
Counsel: As far as you are aware, you did not know the full complement of the persons who were going to negotiate but you recall Mr Dookeran and Mr Toney, is that correct?
Johnson: Yes, and Mr Richardson eventually joined in.
Counsel: Perhaps you could share with the commission what the rest of that night was like?
Johnson: The rest of that night... It’s very difficult to go it over but I’ll do my best.
The rest of that night consisted of constant shelling from outside. We were afraid that somehow this shelling, the gunshots would eventually reach to us but as I said before we were down under our seats and we heard as part of the negotiations that Canon Knolly Clarke would come to assist with the negotiations. I heard that and I heard the loudest noise I have ever heard in my life at one end of the Red House. We heard that there was a fire so that was very very disconcerting and I remember thinking well if there is a fire in this building pretty soon the fire would take us all. That was a very scary time, very frightening part of the event.
We were lined up and I heard someone speaking. He was giving orders. He told the persons who he was giving the order that ‘You have this gun and these people are lined up here’ and each of the rebels had a gun and was responsible for the persons lined up. And the persons lined up were only the Government ministers and he told them (the person was Bilal Abdullah ) he said, ‘Listen we understand what is going on outside that there would be an attempt to invade the Parliament. ‘If the Parliament is invaded, I understand also that the signal would be the turning off of the lights,’ so he ordered them ‘As soon as the lights go off mark your target right now and as soon as the lights go off shoot.’ So that was one very, very scary time.
Counsel: Did the lights ever go off?
Johnson: No. Thank God the lights never went off.
Counsel: Did you form the impression, Mrs Johnson, that Bilal Abdullah was in communication with the security forces outside?
Johnson: Yes he was in communication with somebody outside, somebody outside.
Counsel: Around what time was that?
Johnson: That was late, that would have been in the morning, the early hours of the morning (Saturday).
Counsel: Were you and your colleagues subsequently removed?
Johnson: Yes, after a while. We remained in that position for a while, and I think perhaps they got word that whatever tactics were to be deployed would not be deployed again so we were returned to original positions and also that evening I think what brought us a little comfort (was) the negotiator Canon Knolly Clarke came in.
Counsel: At what point did he come in, at what time, would it have been the very Friday night or would it have been the following morning?
Johnson: I think he came in late - maybe the morning period, yes.
Counsel: So that would be Saturday morning?
Counsel: Can you tell us what happened after that.
Johnson: I think the negotiations stepped up because Dr Hosein realised that if the persons who are injured did not get attention, they would perhaps die. So I think Dr Hosein was the person, apart from the prime minister, who really really stepped up and was a hero in that situation. So he was concerned about the negotiations stepped up, he was concerned that Mr Des Vignes was perhaps losing blood or consciousness, so part of the negotiations was to get assistance for Mr Des Vignes and also for Mr Robinson.
Counsel: So as a result of Dr Hosein’s efforts to step up the negotiations and people needing attention and so on, did that bear fruit?
Johnson: Yes it did bear fruit because the morning we understood that they agreed to let Minister Dookeran go out and they agreed to let Mr Des Vignes go out and they agreed also to get some medication for Mr Robinson’s eyes. That was the original agreement because Mr Robinson suffers from glaucoma and Dr Hosein was quite sure that if he was not treated he would become blind. And they agreed to get the medication because very early in the morning the medication came. Because I remember them asking me to put it in his eyes. There was a curtain, they put up a piece of black cloth to darken the area and put it in his eyes so that I know that negotiations along those lines were going on.
Counsel: Did you ever get the sense that your captors felt that these negotiations were not bearing fruit, not going as they wanted it to go and they were preparing to take some other kind of action?
Johnson: Yes, particularly in the latter stages of negotiations when Mr Richardson was negotiating how they would come out of the Parliament. You know, that took some time and there seemed to be some frustration as to that.
Counsel: And how did this frustration manifest itself?
Johnson: Well I think mostly it was the frustration with my colleagues and myself. We were a bit frustrated and we could see a bit of nervousness among the rebels. And there was one incident that at least got me a little bit alarmed. One of their rebels — a fairly young man — he just lost it, he just went berserk.
Counsel: On what day was that, do you recall?
Johnson: That would have been more like maybe late Monday when it was agreed — when the negotiations had reached a particular phase and they were negotiating the terms of surrender. And this young man just went berserk and he had a gun in his hand and his fellow rebels had to tie him up and restrain him and again Dr Hosein stepped in and said you have to get some kind of medication for him (rebel) and all that caused a bit of nervousness. Eventually he was tied up really, really tied up in a strange way and they eventually got the medication for him and Dr Emmanuel (Hosein) went to administer the medication and he (rebel) was able to lunge at Dr Hosein and send Dr Hosein skating down the corridor and Dr Hosein got up and tried again and eventually the medication was administered. So that was a kind of nervousness and because of that we were very uneasy at that time.
Counsel: Did you have any input into the negotiations at all?