Features — 30 April 2014 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

I am not a fan of the present gun laws in our country and was excited recently when a group had organized to challenge it and attorneys were planning to place a question before the courts to determine the constitutionality of such law. But sadly, that movement seems to have died off… it needs to be addressed urgently!

The recent charges against six persons for two bullets allegedly found at a Belize City residence just bore witness to the injustice of said law and how people would go to desperate measures to now defeat this law. I do believe it is an unjust law that deprives all of their freedom once gun or ammunition is found on a premises. It is unjust because in most cases some of the folks caught in the midst of this catch-all law, are merely visiting, do not ever live there, are minors, persons with no knowledge of the presence of guns or ammunition and also persons in an already abusive situation where that is the only place they have to live.

And it seems that the police also have the habit of including on the list of those arrested and charged persons who were not even on the premises at the time the gun and/or ammunition is found. Even worse, persons whose pictures or identification documents are found there, for whatever reason. I personally know of two such cases. In one because a young lady was in a picture with the person who was the target of the police. Clearly she may have been the girlfriend, but not living there and the gun law as it stands does not say the police have the power to arrest those not at the premises and not living there.

The second case I am aware of is where the police found the ID of a lady in the bag of a person at the premises, called her to come in to get her ID and proceeded to arrest and charge her. Sadly, she had to spend time in prison for a charge involving a premises she does not even live at and was not present at, at the time of the search. I believe that is an injustice, which she will have to endure before she can be cleared by the courts or the Office of the DPP gets the file and realizes the injustice being perpetuated under the name of their good office.

Mis-use of penalty for firearm offences

Ignorance of the law, it is said, is not a defence. However, the truth is not many Belizeans take time to know the various laws. With the abuse of the gun law to target purported known criminals and personalities already profiled or to just get after persons, no Belizean is safe and you never know when you will be the next target. If the Gino Peck situation did not prove that, I do not know what will…but at any rate at minimum, even if only as a deterrence, people should know what is the penalty if you are convicted of a firearm offence under the Firearm Act, Chapter 143 of the Laws of Belize. At Section 32 it states in part:

32.-(1) Any person who is guilty of an offence against this Act shall, unless otherwise specially provided, be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars or to imprisonment for any term not exceeding two years, or to both such fine and term of imprisonment:

Provided that the punishment for the first offence under this Act shall not be less than a term of six months’ imprisonment, and the punishment for a second or subsequent offence under this Act shall not be less than a term of eighteen months’ imprisonment:

Provided further that the court may, in the case of a first offence under this Act, refrain from imposing the mandatory custodial sentence prescribed above if there be special extenuating circumstances which shall be recorded in writing, and in lieu thereof, impose a fine of not less than one thousand dollars and in default of payment of such fine, a term of imprisonment of not less than six months.”

But the law for issuance of penalties is either not known or misused by the magistrates. I have become aware of several instances where first time offenders are given the two-year penalty and this is even after pleading guilty. One man in the Toledo District pled guilty for a firearm offence because the other occupants of the house were a woman and her mentally challenged child. He did it so as not to have all persons arrested and charged and imprisoned because the mother was the sole caregiver. The magistrate in his/her lack of judicious knowledge sentenced this first time offender to two years imprisonment, where I subsequently learnt he remains, as his family did not get a lawyer and did not know they could appeal because he pled guilty… I say, what injustice!

“Religious law” – misinterpreted

But as if the implementations of laws are not harsh enough, we now are hearing about instances where religious laws are like community law and are implemented without even a hearing. I was taken aback last week Friday when I heard a news report by Arturo Cantun on Love Radio news about youths in three Mennonite communities which self-regulate to the point of absurdity. Sadly, the harshness being meted out on those who do not abide by the Mennonites’ strict religious laws includes being beaten, abused, targeted and discriminated against, which is not only illegal in Belize, but also unconstitutional!

It seems that in those three communities there is no concept of religious freedom. My understanding is that under the agreement between the Mennonite settlements and the State they have a provision to be allowed to exert their internal system of governance and laws, and religion to the exclusion of the State. For them the religion is the law and the law is a way of life. Sadly, they don’t seem to appreciate that key to it all is the freedom which community members must have to elect to practice said religion, and, most importantly, that the agreement they have with the state is NOT above the Constitution.

According to the report and the persons interviewed several ills were highlighted:

1. Persons are not allowed to listen to music;

2. Persons are not allowed to own cell phones;

3. Persons are not allowed to smoke;

4. Persons are not allowed to play sports;

5. Persons committing child abuses are not reported or dealt with.

Interestingly, Anna Weir [not sure of the spelling] was not shy to speak out about how this is impacting on the youths in the Mennonite community. She spoke of her own experience of leaving the community of Shipyard because of the fact that her differing views got her ostracized.

It seems a few have suffered in silence and only now we are hearing their outcry. From all accounts it is not all Mennonite communities that take the strict interpretation of ecclesiastical laws that far, but some like Barton Creek go as far as condemning the use of machinery. However, the ones now being exposed are Shipyard, Indian Creek and Little Belize.

To me this is a worrying situation and one that needs to be treated with urgency, delicacy and diplomacy because the two most vulnerable groups remain the women and their minor children. Imagine, if there is widespread sexual abuse of the girls, no one will want to report it as the child and mother are indoctrinated from birth to fall under the full submission and authority of the men. And in these types of cultish situations, the men band together and none will turn against the other, often because they all carry their own skeletons so none want to be the first to throw the Biblical and proverbial, first stone.

Those already against the Word of God will quickly jump to condemn Biblical faith, but I say to this: God’s new covenant with us does not condone this over-zealous, misguided faith; rather His Word teaches love and salvation for the worst of sinners!

No law is respected

Belize is at a crossroads when it comes to our laws. We need to take a step back and look where we are going as a people. Laws are only as good as they reflect the ethos of the community and only functional if the people know the laws and their rights and responsibilities.

A case in point is the Alcade system of governance practiced in the Mayan communities, which is slowly being eroded because of partisan politics and now oil companies supported by partisan politics. The Mayan people really are not all united, as some want to maintain their culture, way of life and identity as best as possible, while others want to just abandon that and live as they please.

Before the oil companies came along inciting the division, there was already a trial attempt to dismantle the Alcaldes’ power and authority, when Central Government implemented a second tier of governance through the village chairman system. This was a deliberate attempt to have a government-controlled election along party affiliation which somehow duplicated the Alcalde system.

See, Alcaldes do not run for office along party lines. Rather, they are like a law officer, somehow like a lay magistrate and diluted version of a governor, and after they are elected by their community members their appointment is conferred by the Attorney General. I say this because their role is not to tell the community what to do but to facilitate dialogue and even act as a magistrate. For those who did not know that the post of Alcalde is established in our laws, they need to read the Inferior Courts Act Chapter sections 67 to 84 and learn that an Alcalde has a legal duty to his community as is stipulated in Section 69 of the Act: “There shall be established in each district an “Alcalde Jurisdiction Court” which shall have and exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction in accordance with, and subject to, this Part of this Act.”

Now that the battle over oil drilling in Maya communities is raging we will see how many Alcaldes will withstand the test of time and truly consult their community on their position before signing any agreement or taking any position. Of course we need to remain vigilant of the oil companies that know too well the cash vulnerabilities of these leaders and often buy them over, as I sadly witnessed with my dear comrade Ligorio Coy, who was at the helm of the Maya Leaders Association and Toledo Alcalde Association and turned coat the very night he was to give a statement on behalf of these Associations. If I had not seen and heard it for myself I would not have believed it happened. But at the end of the day leaders at all levels must be accountable to their conscience and their God.

God bless Belize!

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