In February of 1970, more than 45 years ago, the then publisher and editor of this newspaper, Ismail Omar Shabazz and Evan X Hyde, respectively, were arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy. Her Majesty’s Government of British Honduras alleged that Shabazz and X Hyde were attempting to bring the colony’s administration of justice into disrepute by publishing a front page story in Amandala entitled “Games Old People Play.”
At the time of the offending article’s publication, there were a couple election petition cases taking place in the Supreme Court of British Honduras. This was in the immediate aftermath of the general election of December 8, 1969, in which the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) had won 17 seats, while the Opposition National Independence Party (NIP) and the People’s Development Movement (PDM) coalition (NIPDM) had won just one seat. The NIPDM candidate for the Freetown constituency, Henry Fairweather, had filed an election petition against the electoral victory of the PUP Freetown candidate, Premier George Price.
British Honduras had become a self-governing colony in early 1964. The judicial system was being run in 1970 by the Chief Justice, Sir Clifford de Lisle Innis, who was reportedly a white Barbadian. The first Belizean Commissioner of Police, Arthur Adolphus, had been appointed in 1969. But, Belize’s administration of justice remained very British in 1970. The judges and attorneys still wore wigs in the Supreme Court, and the courts still held a sacrosanct aura. The goddess of justice was still blindfolded: in other words, she was reputed to be absolutely impartial. This was a fundamental of British rule.
The courts of independent Belize do not have that same aura in 2015. Politicians and political propagandists in Belize today routinely make public statements which would have been considered contempt of court in 1970. Once a matter goes before the courts, it is referred to as being sub iudice, which is to say, being decided by litigation. Matters which are sub iudice are not to be discussed materially in public until the matters have been decided legally. We have seen the Honorable Prime Minister, himself a learned attorney, give his opinion publicly on matters which are sub iudice, and we have heard political propagandists on radio and television stations predict how cases will turn out and question the freedom of the courts. More than that, the Chief Justice of Justice has made orders which essentially appear to have been ignored. We would refer specifically to his order to the Commissioner of Police to investigate the Elvin Penner passport sale matter.
When the decision to make the February 1970 seditious conspiracy arrest was made, it was logical to assume that the recently re-elected PUP Cabinet may have made a political decision to discipline the United Black Association for Development (UBAD), a one-year-old cultural movement which published Amandala. But, UBAD was not a political party in February of 1970, and while its rhetoric may have been considered inflammatory, UBAD had not entered into street warfare with the ruling PUP, which subsequently became the case in 1972. But, it seems possible to us, in retrospect, that the Chief Justice could have prevailed, judicially, upon the PUP Attorney General to have his PUP Cabinet sanction the arrest and charge of the newspaper publishers. In 1970, the judiciary of British Honduras was independent of the executive and legislative arms of government, and indeed, probably the judiciary had the British Crown-derived power to influence the executive/legislature.
The law is not a science. The administration of justice involves arguments and decisions which are, ultimately, subjective. Most of the law is verbal, and words are subject to varying interpretations. Cases move from lower courts to higher courts in the quest for the most informed, most “judicious” decision. Much of the law involves precedents, cases which are similar to the specific matter before the court and whose past arguments and decisions are considered relevant to the present matter.
The legislature, on the other hand, is straightforward arithmetic. One is elected to represent a constituency of citizens in the House of Representatives based on one’s receiving more votes in a free and fair electoral process than one’s political opponents receive. In the case of the Henry Fairweather election petition in 1970, there is no doubt that Mr. Price received more votes than Mr. Fairweather did. So then, all that Mr. Fairweather’s attorneys could have been arguing was that the process in that election was not free and fair.
The underlying thesis of the “seditious conspiracy” article in this newspaper was that, the newly elected PUP legislature and the newly appointed PUP executive having already been installed, it was expecting too much of the judiciary, in our view, to have them overturn an election result, especially, needless to say, when it involved the Premier of the country. The power structure of British Honduras reacted forcefully to protect what they considered the sacrosanct nature of the judicial process. The writer of the offending article was not saying that the judiciary was not sacred: he was saying that in the election petition matter the judiciary was irrelevant. That is how a jury of his peers saw it, and that is why Shabazz and X Hyde were acquitted.
Any democratic state must consider its judiciary of surpassing importance, and it must consider that judiciary’s independence of absolute priority. The judiciary is a delicate institution, because the judges who make decisions are only human beings. We citizens accept their decisions because we hold our judges in high esteem. We Belizeans, however, do not hold our attorneys in high esteem. One of the problems here is that we citizens can see that there exists a fraternity of the law, and that fraternity has made it so that attorneys are, functionally, above the law. Justice is not meted out to attorneys in the same manner that justice is meted out to the rest of us, because there is a fraternity of the law. If the attorneys were gangsters, we would refer to that fraternity as a Mafia.