Politics — 18 October 2013 — by Adele Ramos
Penner passport scandal sparks political trouble

When the Elvin Penner passport scandal broke just under a month ago, the outrage was over a single Belizean passport which had, again, ended up in the wrong hands, but Opposition People’s United Party Senator Lisa Shoman, who pledges to present a motion in Parliament the next time the Senate meets, said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon that what is evident today is “institutionalized rot” within the Immigration Department and “extralegal hustling and selling of visas.”

Apart from endorsing calls for a criminal investigation into the passport scandal, the Opposition is calling for an independent Senate inquiry, to determine the scope of what has transpired.

“This motion will be brought to the floor of the Senate at the next meeting and it will be put to a vote. We are talking to the social partner senators, and I understand that there is solid support for the idea. It will be put to a vote and that vote will be a public vote, and senators will be required to stand up and say ‘aye’ or ‘nay’, because Belizeans deserve to know who is going to allow this to be investigated by the Senate and who will refuse, and I am calling on every single senator –whether that senator is appointed by the UDP, by the PUP, or by the social partners to uphold and respect the Constitution and our powers and functions contained therein,” Shoman said.

“Every single day that has gone by has proven that the rot in the Immigration Department has gotten bigger and deeper and it is now a sinkhole that is threatening to swallow the United Democratic Party, and if we are going to show the world and our nation and our citizens that we are serious about governance, then the process has to work and this is why the People’s United Party and the Senators who have been appointed by the People’s United Party have started to discuss with our social partner senators using the powers and functions contained in the Constitution, to try to get to the bottom of what is happening in the Immigration Department, because this isn’t just going to be a matter of the police, but it is going to be a matter of our national restoration to find out (a) what is happening, (b) to ensure that this never happens again and (c) to make absolutely certain that policies are put in place to ensure that never again anybody will be able to take our national patrimony, to take our citizenship, to take our passports and cheapen them…” added the Opposition Senator.

“The Belizean people need to know who are the ministers in this Cabinet who are engaged in selling visas – where it is reported to us that these visas are being sold for as much as $10,000. Ministers collecting money and only $2,000 going into the coffers of the government? Where is the next $8,000 going?” Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca asked.

The Opposition is also leading a recall petition to remove Penner as representative for Cayo North East, and they are furthermore calling for a re-registration exercise, saying that the voters list has been seriously compromised.

Last year, Penner won his seat by a narrow margin of 17 votes over the Opposition member Orlando “Landy” Habet.

Habet had sought court redress via election petition, challenging the Penner win – to no avail. In his claim to the court, Habet had contended that agents of Penner were bribing or attempting to bribe voters on election day. He furthermore noted Penner’s indications via national television that he had personally facilitated voters with citizenship papers—an act which Habet had alleged runs contrary to election rules.

Today, Habet, who is leading the collection of signatures in the constituency for a recall vote, said that they have a box with more than 1,500 signatures, despite an “anti-Penner recall” effort launched by the ruling United Democratic Party.

“Barrow’s campaign for an anti-recall petition is tantamount to the vitiation of the very act, the very legislation that he passed giving the citizens the right and the opportunity to recall an elected representative as stated under the act of 2010,” Habet said.

(Of note is that the UDP has since recanted, and Prime Minister Barrow has called for Penner’s resignation from the party.)

He furthermore expressed his “full support for re-registration” because in 2012, said Habet, they could not find more than 400 people purportedly registered in his division, because they live in Melchor, Guatemala—not in Belize.

The Opposition Leader expressed confidence that the PUP—which lost to the UDP by three seats—will gain the Cayo North East seat.

As for the re-registration proposal, Landy Espat, a PUP representative who sits on the Elections and Boundaries Commission, has written the Commission chairman, B. Q. Pitts, making the request. Espat told Pitts that in light of the passport scandal, “… there is great need to insist that a re-registration exercise, as mandated by The Representation of the People Act, be initiated by the Ministry responsible for Elections and Boundaries.”

He said that this is needed to ensure the integrity of our voters’ lists.

“Our democracy is tarnished by Penner, who just before and after the General Elections, personally signed and facilitated nationality to persons who did not qualify, and these persons participated in our national elections,” Espat furthermore said.

During the 2012 elections, the Barrow administration invited the Organization of American States to observe the process, and today, Fonseca said that the Opposition is in preliminary discussions to see how it could engage the OAS in the Cayo North East process. He said that he had discussed the issue with Senator Shoman, a former Belize Ambassador to the OAS, because they are looking at how they can engage the OAS to internationalize the process and to see what benefit can be derived from their input.

Espat said although the UDP changed the law to require re-registration every 20 years as opposed to every 15, the exercise is, in his view, urgent in light of “mass illegal nationalization and registration.”

“We can’t wait 20 years to have a re-registration exercise. We will have elections long before that. Penner was registering people who do not qualify. They voted already. It is imperative now to clean the voters’ list,” Espat told our newspaper.

Espat indicated, though, that the re-registration won’t happen before by-elections in Cayo North East. He told us that the last re-registration exercise happened in 1997

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