“…it makes every person in this country a possible criminal.”
Russell Roberts—the activist who last week emerged to publicly challenge an existing gun law which has seen a pregnant mother, a reputable teacher, and a grandmother, among scores of other persons, unjustly slapped with gun or ammunition possession charges—said that attorneys are now looking at the possibility of lodging a class action suit in the Supreme Court of Belize.
Roberts is furthermore leading a campaign to get affected persons to document their experiences, so that a case can be made to Prime Minister Dean Barrow for the revisiting of the law, which, some say, violates Belizeans’ constitutional right to freedom, as well as the judicial presumption that they are innocent until proven guilty. Roberts said that they are aiming to get 100 to 200 names, which would be submitted to the Prime Minister, to demonstrate the need to give ear to the concerns.
This morning Roberts was joined by the Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) at a Radisson Fort George Hotel press conference at which COLA announced that it won’t let Roberts go out there alone to fight what the COLA president, Geovannie Brackett, describes as a “barbaric law” which “has to be done away with…” because, according to Jihad McLaren, another COLA official, “…it makes every person in this country a possible criminal.”
“The law is three years old, but it takes a common man like me [to fight it]. You have big man in society. Why they couldn’t take it up? I am tired of seeing my brothers and sisters punishing. So that is why I stepped out,” Roberts said, in explaining why he has only moved now to challenge the law.
Roberts said that since he came public last Friday he has been speaking with attorneys who are looking into the possibility of filing a class action suit against the Government of Belize – particularly in cases where persons have been unfairly jailed on gun or ammunition possession charges, some of whom felt compelled to submit a guilty plea only to save their family.
“It is sad to say that you can throw a bullet in somebody’s yard and if they can’t afford an attorney, they will be thrown in jail… COLA strongly condemns this law as selective justice,” said COLA president Brackett.
In an earlier press release COLA had alleged preferential treatment, saying that there had been two recent cases where persons were let off the hook, showing that the right to fair treatment can be abused by those who have more resources and connections.
“There should never be the appearance for preferential treatment to any Belizean, regardless of their social condition or alleged connections,” COLA had said.
Brackett reiterated that point at this morning’s press conference – saying that persons who are not affluent or politically connected, get hurt by the law, while others are shown preferential treatment.
He called the law “unconstitutional,” as the Belize Constitution provides that people are innocent until proven guilty.
He also pointed out that the firearm law removes discretion from magistrates, because it forces them to impose a mandatory detention time of 90 days, after which the person accused can be released. Only persons who can hire an attorney to fight in court for their release can be released earlier, he noted.
Roberts said that they want to lodge a formal complaint with the Prime Minister, and they are requesting a meeting with him so that they can make a presentation on the negative effects of the law and how it can be improved.
Brackett said that it is sad and unjust that someone found with a sack of weed can get bail immediately, while someone can be instantly locked up for a rusty bullet – if that person can’t afford an attorney, for as many as 90 days!
“They have made a serious mistake and this is the time for them to correct it… this law gotta go!” said Rufus X, another COLA activist.
He said that the law could spell doom in a scenario where police may find bullets aboard a university bus with 50 students. The future of each of them would be sabotaged, because most won’t even be able to find a lawyer—which would cost upwards of $2,000—to appeal within 14 days, and so would remain remanded for as many as 90 days. This, he said, would ruin their academic and professional dreams, while more connected and more affluent persons would be able to regain their freedom faster.
He also pointed to another possible scenario where a terminally ill man could be unfairly forced to spend his last days in jail, if police found a bullet on a bus he might be traveling in.
As the law now stands, Rufus X said, the magistrate’s hands would be tied in either scenario, and that person would face mandatory remand.
“This is not a law that we should tolerate as citizens,” Rufus X said.
“This law is demonic and if the Cabinet [members] are not sitting demons, they have no other alternative but to amend it,” said Rufus X.
Delroy Herrera, the activist who had joined Roberts in launching the initiative last Friday, said that it has been one week since their last press conference, and he called for the immediate detention of those persons who were shown preferential treatment.
Gilroy Usher, Jr., a COLA official, said that he knows of a case in which three people were imprisoned because of merely visiting a home raided by police. He said that the purpose of the law is not to send innocent people – such as a grandmother or an entire family of siblings – to prison.
He noted a case where although a weapon was found in one home in a family yard, an occupant of another house in the yard was also made to face charges.
Usher said that despite the law, killings continue to be frequent and most of them are still being perpetrated with guns. Two of three recent murders were executed with firearms, he said, adding that authorities are still, for the most part, not capturing perpetrators of gun crimes.
Jihad McLaren, of the roots movement known as “Commoners,” said that over 2,000 murders have occurred since 1990 and if Belize has seen 100 convictions, it has seen a lot!
He noted that most of the murders are carried out with guns—despite the legislative changes which mean automatic jail time for persons—innocent or guilty—as long as they are found at the location where illegal guns or ammunition are found. He said that the law, as it now stands, makes every person in this country a possible criminal.
McLaren said that soon after the law was passed, the Commoners made it clear that they had major concerns over the provisions.
Rufus X said that the Government has recently made changes to clauses in the Constitution which had been embedded on the books for many years, so changing provisions which have only been there for a relatively few years should not be a problem – especially in light of the fact that the provisions are “now affecting us wholesale…”
Rufus X said that there should be no need for a petition to be brought forth, because if Cabinet consists of reasonable men, it would just take one visit to the House to revisit these laws.
Of note is that Parliament plans to hold a special sitting next Wednesday, January 22, 2014, but there is no indication that any revision of the disputed gun law is on that day’s agenda.