Features — 31 May 2013 — by Adele Ramos
“Draconian” FIU trampling citizens’ rights?

Seine Bight villagers say FIU seizing their property, and no one can help

Several Seine Bight villagers are complaining that police have taken away their personal property which they worked hard to acquire, and more than two months after the seizures, their property has still not been returned to them.

One of the most vocal is village councilor Lavern Arzu, who won one of seven seats in the village council elections held in Seine Bight on Sunday, May 19, 2013. Arzu said that she ran for the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP), and they should have “had [her] back”, like she has had theirs.

“They are depriving me… They want me to die,” said Arzu, whose red 1997 Ford pickup, which she said is valued at $7,000, was confiscated on March 1, 2013, with a full tank of gas. Arzu also said that she had $500 cash in her vehicle to pay for her registration and licensing.

She told us that she has complained to Police Internal Affairs, which has been renamed the Professional Standards Branch. However, head of the branch, Noel Leal, told Amandala he has not been apprised of the case, although he did see Arzu’s story aired on television.

Arzu, who said that she complained personally to the Minister of National Security John Saldivar but has still not gotten her truck back, hired Philip “Fawda” Henry, who has the Do The Right Thing Pedestrian Crossing program, to document the Seine Bight story with video recordings and channel them to the media—still in the hope that she will get her truck back.

Arzu said that she has to now hire a taxi to do her business runs, which is a major and unnecessary expense she has been incurring.

According to the Seine Bight councilor, she had been using the pickup to help her earn her living. She cooks at resorts and performs with her Garifuna dance group for cruise tourists. She told us that she is also a youth organizer for the National Garifuna Council.

She maintains that the funds she used to buy the truck, which she bought from a Dangriga resident, were not tainted and they are not the proceeds of drug dealing or robbery, but the product of legitimate work. She said she also sells bananas, coconuts and vegetables to earn a living.

A fisherman has, likewise, complained that police confiscated his boat and engine on March 1, 2013, and he tried to explain to them that he earns his living from fishing, and not from drug-running. He has hired an attorney, but his matter has still not been resolved.

Apart from multiple property seizures by police in the village on March 1, there have also been allegations by several teenaged boys of abuse by police in the area. One boy furthermore alleged that a cop ‘hustled’ him for $50—which he said he did not have to pay him.

The Seine Bight villagers said that the police officer who was leading the operations told them that it was the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) that had ordered the seizures. Some of them were hearing of the FIU for the first time in their lives.

FIU Director Marilyn Williams is in Nicaragua until next week, and so she was unavailable to speak with us on the matter when we contacted her this week.

Arzu’s attorney, Oswald Twist, told Amandala that he has been checking with the head of the FIU after he wrote both the Commissioner of Police and the Director of Public Prosecution, who advised that the case is not in their hands.

The attorney told us that the money laundering and terrorism laws give the FIU “wide powers” which include seizures without a warrant from the court. He described the provisions as “very draconian.” Twist told our newspaper that the police were under the direction of the FIU when they took his client’s vehicle and ownership papers.

Government legal counsel Gian Ghandi, whom Twist recommended we speak with regarding the provisions of the Money Laundering and Terrorism (Prevention) Act, told us that, “There is no provision in the Money Laundering Act for search and seizure without a warrant if the owner or the occupier of the land does not consent.”

He said that warrantless searches can, however, be conducted under the Firearms Act if they are done for firearms or ammunition. Police can seize drugs or other illegal material found in such searches, he said.

In addition, Ghandi explained that under section 10 of the FIU Act, if the FIU Director has reasonable grounds to believe that a financial crime has been, is being or is about to be committed, she may authorize an officer to seize “any documents or material which may provide evidence relevant to an investigation being conducted by the Unit.”

According to Councilor Arzu, police first went to her brother’s adjacent property, and the cops were forcing her brother to say that her vehicle belonged to him. The cops claimed they were searching for drugs and ammunition, Arzu said, confirming that they did not present a search warrant.

The police also told them that their brother in the US, who has been sending money via Western Union to finance the building of a concrete home on their family property in the village, would be sent to jail, Arzu said.

It was after that exchange, said the councilor, that the police started demanding the pickup keys from her son, and because they were ‘roughing him up’, said Arzu, she told her son to surrender the keys so that he would not get hurt.

Fawda Henry told our newspaper that he went looking in Belmopan for the vehicle, and the first time he went, there was no pickup; however, when he did a subsequent check, after ventilating the issue on radio, the vehicle showed up on the premises of the Ministry of National Security, along with two other vehicles that had also been seized from Seine Bight: a Ford Ranger and a Dodge Caravan.

Arzu said that she last spoke to her attorney, Oswald Twist, two weeks ago, and he said he can’t do anything, because the FIU is investigating.

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