BELIZE CITY, Tues. Mar. 24, 2015–Since 1999, citizens who are victims of abuses by public authorities have an independent complaints office which could investigate and seek redress on their behalf. That office is the Office of the Ombudsman of Belize, currently headed by Lionel Arzu, MSc. Arzu’s 14th Annual Report, covering the period of January 1, 2014 to December 31, 2014, his second year in office, was tabled in Parliament at its last Sitting, and it was this week the subject of a committee review in the National Assembly.
Arzu reports that during 2014, private citizens made a total of 220 new complaints against public authorities — comparable to previous years, both in terms of the number and nature of the complaints made.
Arzu’s office similarly reported receiving 211 complaints over the course of 2013, and he noted that public authorities had not responded in nearly 7 in 10 of the cases. Of those, 99 complaints were against the police, Arzu told Amandala today.
This year, there were more complaints against the police: 116 of the 220, or just over half of the cases. Arzu told us that a “very, very small” percentage of those cases have actually come to closure and he has been working with the Professional Standards Branch of the Police Department to try to resolve cases dating as far back as 2009. The Ombudsman told us that he meets with the Professional Standards Branch every month in an attempt to address those cases.
The 2014 complaints allege “unwarrantable violence, ranging from aggravated assault to murder; misconduct, from corruption to falsifying police statements to disciplinary offences such as drunken and disorderly behavior in public; non-investigation of reports of crimes, whether intentional or negligent; unlawful search and seizure; false imprisonment and malicious prosecution; and identification errors, including mistaken identity on a police record; theft, misappropriation and damage or destruction of property including property held as exhibits.”
In one case cited in the Ombudsman’s report, a mother from Belmopan complained that police officers and villagers conspired to murder her son, a known mentally ill man living in Big Falls, Toledo. She alleged that policemen showed up in a vehicle at the victim’s house and fatally shot him, purportedly in self-defense.
Of the complaints, categorized by the ministry or branch of government against which such complaints are made, the Ministry of National Security, which includes the Coast Guard and the Belize Defence Force, accounts for 58%. Allegations against police made up 89% of all complaints levied against the Ministry of National Security.
“The second and third largest numbers of complaints were against the Lands and Survey Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Agriculture, and the Judiciary, respectively,” the Ombudsman reported.
Furthermore, 116 of the complaints – more than half – originated from the Belize District. The other districts accounted for relatively small percentages of complaints. Cayo District came in a distant second with thirty-one (31) complaints. The least number of complaints originated from the Corozal District.
According to the Ombudsman, about 40% of the complaints received in 2014 are the subject of preliminary enquiries.
About a quarter (25%) of the complaints were refused, terminated or referred without investigation and almost a quarter (24%) of complaints resulted in notices being given to the authorities complained against. There were replies to about 40% of those given notices, and there was closure in 1% of the cases.
One example of a case that received closure in 2014 was that of an employee of the Prisons Department who had dislocated his shoulder during an on-the-job training course.
According to the Ombudsman, “He went on medical leave for a couple of months, and returned to work after being certified fit to work on condition that he avoids heavy lifting and strenuous activities. His employment was immediately terminated without any compensation for his injury or lost wages.”
The ex-Kolbe employee complained to the Labour Department and the Ombudsman, and the Ombudsman contacted all parties concerned, including the Labour Department, as well as encouraged the complainant to seek legal advice and representation for an intended lawsuit.
“The complainant was subsequently awarded an out of court settlement in the sum of $9,522.00 in exchange for releasing the Prisons Department and the Kolbe Foundation from all liabilities, claims and actions pertaining to the incident,” said the Ombudsman.
Arzu said that for the first time in the recorded history of the office, 3 applications for review were made under the Freedom of Information Act.
“Although the applications were either denied or did not progress far, the fact of the applications being made quite possibly, signals a movement towards making public authorities more accountable, transparent and fair to all citizens when carrying out their administrative functions,” he stated in the report.
The full report of the Ombudsman can be accessed on our website HERE.