Update – July 26, 2015: Escaped prisoner, Hassan Atwell, was shot and killed this morning
in the Laventille area. Christopher Selby turned himself in to authorities this evening.

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad & Tobago, July 24, 2015 (AMG) – A prisoner and a police officer are dead after a dramatic jailbreak at the Port of Spain Prison, and a shootout at the Port of Spain General Hospital this afternoon. It was the second shooting incident at the prison since Sunday when a prison guard was wounded in a drive-by shooting, and it comes days after death threats were issued against five more prison officers.

The deceased inmate, Allan “Scanny” Martin, as well as fellow inmates Christopher Selby and Hassan Atwell, were armed with two 9mm handguns and a hand grenade, which were thought to be smuggled into the prison by visitors earlier in the day. With loaded guns, the inmates stormed their way out of the prison, ordering security guards there to open the penitentiary gates. As they sped off in a waiting dark-blue Nissan Navara, one of the occupants fatally wounded 27-year-old Police Constable Sherman Maynard, and another discharged a grenade which landed outside the prison’s gates without detonation.

Chased by a police convoy, the Navara crashed near to the Port of Spain General Hospital, after which the vehicle’s occupants ran on to the hospital compound, terrifying staff and patients who barricaded themselves in wards as a further shootout ensued.

Martin was shot and killed by police officers at the hospital, as images of his lifeless body – flanked by a pistol and a mobile phone – quickly went viral on local news outlets.

At least two people, including a 43-year-old man who assisted with the felons’ escape, were also captured during the hospital melee, and they are currently assisting police with their investigations.

The other two fugitives remain at large, even as gridlocked traffic brought the nation’s capital to a standstill this afternoon, and officers conducted stop-and-search exercises in an attempt to locate the escaped men.

One of two female passengers in a taxi outside the Port of Spain General Hospital later told the Trinidad Guardian that escapee Christopher Selby hijacked the vehicle in which she was traveling, before apologizing to the passengers for putting their lives at risk. “Excuse me, but we just trying to fight the system”, Selby reportedly said as he was aided by a sympathetic taxi driver in a getaway bid to Oxford Street.

Sentiments of public support for Atwell have also been reported, with messages of encouragement posted to his now-deleted Facebook page, and a statement – reportedly relayed from Atwell’s mother – sent to the Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, accusing authorities of victimisation on religious grounds:

Put yourself in Hassan’s position, being locked up for 6 years & each time you go to court, you just keep hearing that your case is postponed. Keep in my mind that Hassan was not serving time. My son’s case has never been to trial so that means he has never been proven guilty of the crime that they say he has done. I think the fact is because my son is a Muslim, society has him down as a bad person… Which one of you can point out that Hassan did any of those things? You all can just stipulate [sic] because again as I say he is a Muslim.

— Statement attributed to Maureen Atwell

Background:
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Martin was one of several inmates on trial for the murder of prominent businesswoman Vindra Naipaul Coolman. A state prosecutor investigating the Coolman case, Dana Seetahal, was assassinated in May last year, and Iman Yasin Abu Bakr – the leader of the Jamaat al-Muslimeem group and the architect of a 1990 coup attempt in Trinidad – was this week questioned and released without charge in connection with Seetahalal’s murder. Several other members of the Jamaat were also detained.

Today’s incident comes just days before the 25th anniversary of the July 27 coup attempt.

This Wednesday, the Jamaat leadership issued a statement indicating that it would “do what it had to do” to secure the Iman’s release, giving authorities 24 hours – this Thursday – to release Bakr, but the Iman was released before the ultimatum passed. The Jamaat has strongly denied any involvement with Seetahal murder, and dismissed the state’s investigation of their members in connection with Seetahal’s murder as “stupidity”.

In the wake of the jailbreak, unsubstantiated rumours swirled among a panicked public that another coup attempt was in train – and that similar shootouts were occurring simultaneously at police stations in Port of Spain. But Trinidad’s Minister of National Security, Carl Alfonso, denied such claims. Similarly, early reports that the visitors who smuggled weapons into the prison wore “Muslim garb”, have since been retracted by most media outlets.

In a media statement delivered tonight, leader of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, Yasin Abu Bakr, assured the people of Trinidad that they had nothing to fear from his organisation, as he denied any links between this afternoon’s events, the anniversary of the coup, or to his own detention and that of several other Jamaat members this week.

“The information is sketchy so we cannot make an informed comment at this time,” Bakr said, adding that he felt he should address citizens due to the anxiety in society, especially where Muslims were concerned. As he urged members of the security forces not to discriminate against members of the Muslim faith, he urged the media to be responsible in their reporting, saying that the organisation had nothing to do with today’s criminal acts.

“We know there are concerns regarding people affiliated with us. We have come here to say we have nothing to do with the criminal acts”

— Jamaat-al-Muslimeen

Official responses: In the aftermath of today’s events, Deputy Commissioner of Police for Crime and Operations, Glenn Hackett, said that his team was investigating the escape to determine how exactly the prisoners obtained the firearms, and whether the police had known about the jail break in advance.

“I had no information that these men were planning an ­escape, but I had unconfirmed ­information that somewhere in one of the prisons there was maybe some escape plan about six weeks ago… I placed more police at Maximum Security Prison and the Port of Spain prisons, given that information,” Hackett said.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar also issued a statement to underscore that her government was “in full control”, that there was no uprising throughout the country, and no need for a declaration of a state of emergency. “So long as I am your Prime Minister you have nothing to fear”, said the Prime Minister who will be facing the polls in September.

“I want our citizens to be very clear that so long as I am your Prime Minister you have nothing to fear. Today’s disorder is confined to Port of Spain and is being dealt with effectively”

— Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Keith Rowley has pointed to today’s events as evidence of the “near total collapse of the national security apparatus.”

“What all of this points to is a total breakdown in information gathering in the country and in national security in general, resulting in confusion, rumour, panic and fear. This, notwithstanding all that we have been told all along”

— Dr. Keith Rowley, Opposition Leader

Police officers are continuing their manhunt for escapees Hassan Atwell and Christopher Selby, and have appealed to the fugitives’ families, associates, and members of the public to contact them with leads on the escapees’ whereabouts.

Jovan Reid, Executive Editor

Jovan Reid is AMG's Chief of Public Policy and Advocacy