Headline — 16 May 2014 — by Adele Ramos
Court of Appeal upholds GOB nationalization  of BTL, BEL

The Court of Appeal this afternoon handed down what Attorney General Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington described as a “blowout” decision, in which two of three sitting justices upheld the Government’s nationalization of both Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) and Belize Electricity Limited (BEL).

“It looks like it’s a blowout for Government…” Elrington told the press, in response to the ruling, which Eamon Courtenay, SC, told the press would be swiftly appealed at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).

The case was heard by Justices Manuel Sosa, Samuel Awich and Douglas Mendez, who ruled against GOB.

“One was completely in our favor, one was completely against us, so I think the CCJ will have to have the final decision in this,” Courtenay told the press.

In reading the decision in court this afternoon, President of the Supreme Court, Justice Manuel Sosa, read from the decision of his peer on the bench, Justice Samuel Awich, who ruled that the Government’s nationalization of BTL was valid, effective July 4, 2011. He also dismissed the appeal of Fortis Inc., challenging the Government’s nationalization of BEL that same year.

There was no indication that the court awarded any damages to the respondents in the Telemedia case for the Government’s first appropriation of BTL in 2009, which was evidently not upheld by the Court of Appeal. The Government issued new legislation in 2011, after court battles, to re-nationalize the phone company.

Today, the Court of Appeal ruled that Government should be paid 85% of its court costs in both cases, for one senior counsel and two junior counsels in the Telemedia case, and for one senior counsel and a junior counsel in the BEL case.

Appearing for the Government of Belize was Senior Counsel Denys Barrow, assisted by Crown Counsels Magali Perdomo and Illiani Swift.

Eamon Courtenay, SC, appeared with Ashanti Arthurs and Pricilla Banner for British Caribbean Bank and Fortis Inc., while Godfrey Smith, SC, and Magali Marin-Young appeared for Dean Boyce and the trustees of BTL Employees Trust.

The bank was challenging the Government’s decision to nationalize the telephone company and along with it, to take control of a US$22.5 million mortgage debenture which the bank had with BTL – a loan which was guaranteed by the assets of the phone company.

The BTL Employees Trust, led by Boyce, a former executive chairman of BTL, held shares in BTL at the time of the Government’s acquisition.

In its decision today, the court ruled that the Government must pay compensation, which would be equal to the value of the property appropriated as of July 4, 2011.

Elrington conceded that the Government must compensate the former owners of the company.

“We have to pay for it. We understand that and we have offered to pay, so that’s not a problem. The Government and people of Belize always pay their bills, but we’ve got to make sure that the interest of the people is always protected and it is for that reason that we go to court to have these matters resolved by the courts,” he told us.

Awich said in his decision that the Fortis appeal, challenging the June 2012 decision of Justice Oswell Legall in relation to the BEL nationalization, was dismissed.

We asked Courtenay whether it is consequential that the court only ruled the BTL nationalization effective as of 2011, although the Government has had control of the company since 2009.

“It is a remarkable thing,” said Courtenay, adding that he is anxiously awaiting an opportunity to read the 300-odd page decision to understand the logic.

Asked whether the decision declaring the acquisition valid only since 2011 and not since 2009 could make the Government liable for damages or costs, Barrow said, “That is puzzling for me, so it is something that I would have to work out… it is open-ended at this stage.”

As for the implications going forward, Elrington told the press that it is always important that Belizean people retain substantial ownership of BTL, “although it is always good to have partners…”

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