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Rastafarian wins his right to dreadlocks and meat free diet
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June 4 Port of Spain Trinidad: A Rastafarian who was beaten, fed a diet containing meat and had his locks cut off by prison authorities won his case in the Appeal Court Friday.

Chief Justice Satnarine Sharma ordered the case to be remitted to the High Court and judgment be entered in favour of Damian Belfonte declaring that his constitutional right to freedom of conscience and religious beliefs and observance had been infringed by agents of the State.

Sharma also noted that an order be entered declaring that Belfonte's constitutional right to be informed of his right to retain and instruct an attorney of his own choice without delay has also been infringed after he was arrested in November 1998.

The Chief Justice, who presided over the appeal with Justice of Appeal Margot Warner and Ivor Archie, stated that an assessment be carried out to determine if Belfonte should be compensated for the infringement of his rights.

Dr Fenton Ramsahoye QC and Anand Ramlogan appeared for Belfonte while Deputy Solicitor General Terrence Thorne, Senior State attorney Karlene Seenath and Grace Jankey appeared for the Attorney General.

Commenting on the Court's decision, Ramlogan said the ruling may be the first time since the Courts have pronounced on the discrimination of a person's religious rights.

"This case brings to the forefront the issue of prison reform in a different way because it underscores the way in which prisoners are treated despite the fact that they retain most of the fundamental human rights whilst in prison," he added.

Ramlogan said it was now for the prison authorities to put measures in place to accommodate prisoners who may want to practice their religion while in jail.

Justice Amrika Tiwary-Reddy had dismissed the constitutional motion filed by Belfonte on June 11, 2004 saying that he had alternative remedies available to him to argue his case.

In his lawsuit, Belfonte, of Guaico Tamana Road, Cunaripo, Sangre Grande had claimed that his fundamental rights had been infringed after he was arrested and kept in prison for 22 days before authorities found out that he had already paid outstanding fines for two previous marijuana possession convictions.

"The deprivation of liberty flowed from the fact that he remained in custody for a longer period than was necessary or reasonable because of the failure of the police to inform him of his right to an attorney," the judgment stated.

Sharma stated that the trial judge "simply held" that the motion filed by Belfonte was an abuse of the process of the court and did not allow his attorneys to amend the action. He said the trial judge was wrong to have dismissed the motion in its entirely.

"A trial judge in my view should make every effort to save the proceedings where it is just and reasonable to do so. Matter of procedure are to be kept flexible in order to do justice between the parties," he added.

"Striking out for an abuse of process must be a last resort," the judgment said.

Belfonte had been convicted on two separate charges of being in possession of marijuana in 1997 and fined a total of $1,450. He paid $300 initially and submitted a Manager's cheque to a police officer at Sangre Grande Magistrate's Court in December 1997 for the outstanding balance of $1,150.

On November 3, 1998, Belfonte was arrested, without being informed of his right to retain an attorney, for failing to pay the outstanding fines and taken to prison.

During his term in prison Belfonte was beaten by prison authorities and had his dreadlocks, which he wore for religious reason, cut off against his will. He was also deprived of his vegetarian diet which went against his practices of his Rastafarian religion.

On November 25, 1998, he was released from prison after the fine was paid by the same officer whom he claimed he had given the Manager's cheque in December 1997.

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