PORT-OF-SPAIN – The Muslim cleric who led a small army that stormed Trinidad & Tobago’s Parliament in a blaze of gunfire is a free man. Never convicted of any charges, he cheerfully presides over a mosque and school complex in the country’s bustling capital and shares time among his four wives, the maximum Islam allows.
Yasin Abu Bakr and his followers were jailed for two years after the 1990 attempt to overthrow the government of one of the Caribbean’s most prosperous countries. But they were freed under an amnesty and attempts to prosecute them failed even though 24 people were killed. More than 50 people were taken hostage, including the prime minister, who was bound and shot in the leg.
After years of lingering questions about the attempted coup by Bakr and 113 armed rebels, a commission appointed by the government in 2010 has been taking a fresh look into the only Islamic revolt in the Western Hemisphere. The commission has held more than a dozen sessions over three years in an effort to understand better how and why the violent upheaval occurred. But the panel has no subpoena power and the findings are unlikely to lead to any arrests.
And Bakr isn’t hurrying to provide any answers.
The towering 72-year-old, who dresses in a white robe and skullcap, recently gave The Associated Press a rare interview.
Bakr said he hasn’t decided if he’ll testify before the five-member commission, which is expected to finish collecting testimony by year’s end. He said the panel won’t learn anything important unless he agrees to help.
“I am the architect; I am the leader of the coup,” Bakr told the AP at the Jamaat al Muslimeen group’s compound, where youngsters carried their books from a two-story school and a group of men chatted outside a spacious domed mosque. “I know everything that happened. If I don’t testify to all the things that happened everybody is just guessing.”
For some Trinidadians, Bakr’s group remains a painful reminder of the uprising that staggered the country’s sense of itself as an easygoing land of calypso, cricket and British-style democracy.
“We need to unearth all the facts if only from the point of view of recording history but perhaps we can also suss out any strategic weaknesses that may still remain,’’ said Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran, who was held hostage on the first day of the coup attempt launched July 27, 1990, and who was instrumental in launching the inquiry.
There is no evidence linking Bakr and his group of mostly black converts to Islam to international terrorism. U.S. authorities scrutinized the group after discovering a failed 2007 plot to blow up jet fuel tanks at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Federal investigators reported that a Trinidadian imam and a U.S. citizen from Guyana who were convicted in the case had earlier visited Jamaat al Muslimeen’s compound but no definitive connection was found.
Some researchers say that Islam isn’t the group’s central focus.
amaat al Muslimeen “may be Islamist in its pedigree in that it relied and continues in some respect to use Islamic discourse and symbols … but it was always more of a revolutionary, pan-Africanist movement than anything else,’’ said Chris Zambelis, a Washington-based risk management consultant who specializes in the Middle East but has researched Jamaat al Muslimeen and interviewed members in Trinidad.
Bakr’s reasons for attempting to take over the government have never been fully clear.
A former policeman who converted to Islam while living in Canada and who drew followers mainly among poor urban blacks in Trinidad’s slums, Bakr has blamed the islands’ government in the past for increasing hardship after world oil prices collapsed in the 1980s.
He told AP that he also blamed then-Prime Minister Arthur N.R. Robinson’s administration for the slaying of a female police constable who he insists had witnessed a cocaine transaction involving a government minister. The group was also in a dispute with the government over the compound’s land.
Whatever Bakr’s motivation, the rebellion in the resource-rich republic off Venezuela’s coast was among the more bizarre events in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean.
It started with a car bomb that gutted a police station near parliament, and continued with the takeover of the legislature.
After the rebels held Robinson and others hostage for six days, officials promised the insurgents amnesty, then immediately arrested them when they surrendered.
Trinidad’s High Court later upheld the amnesty on grounds that Jamaat al Muslimeen’s members were the beneficiaries of a presidential pardon, even though the state argued it was made under duress. Bakr and his followers were freed after two years in lockup and never re-arrested.