Three new bills for changes to Belize’s Immigration Act, Passport Act and Nationality Act were tabled in Parliament today, in response to recent allegations that key Government officials have been arranging for Belizean passports and visas to be issued to persons who may not be desirable citizens or visitors for their (the officials’) own personal profit.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who tabled the proposed amendments, endorsed by Cabinet, said that the amendments are designed “to make the procedures as failsafe as possible.”
He told Parliament that he is confident that when the new legislation are passed, together with internal changes being made in the Ministry, they will have a much more effective Immigration Department – “both in terms of delivery of service to the people but most importantly in terms of guarding against corruption.”
The amendment to the Belizean Nationality Act, Chapter 161 of the Laws of Belize, calls for anyone found breaching the provisions, requiring the nationality requirements to be met, to be both fined and confined. The amendment stipulates a fine of $50,000 and a mandatory prison term of 5 to 15 years.
Barrow underscored that under Belize law, nationality applicants must have a permanent residence permit and 5 years of continuous residency in Belize immediately prior to receiving Belizean nationality.
The changes to The Immigration Act, Chapter 156 of the Laws of Belize, include the addition of new sections to process residency permits, and most importantly it provides for a visa-vetting committee, he said, adding that this will greatly strengthen the process of granting visas “to desirable persons wanting to enter Belize.”
The legislative changes also call for a Nationality Scrutinizing Committee, which should have membership from the social partners – the unions, private sector and churches.
Despite the proposed amendments, though, Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca, the People’s United Party (PUP) area representative for Freetown, made it clear that, “This matter will not go away!”
Fonseca said that Barrow was also culpable: “The Prime Minister has yet to satisfactorily explain his decision to negligently and recklessly confer authority on [former Minister of State Elvin Penner] to sign nationality certificates. Everybody in Belize knew that this was the member for Cayo North East’s weakness,” Fonseca said.
Notably, Penner, whom Barrow has asked to resign from his seat, was absent from today’s sitting of the House of Representatives.
“The Prime Minister knew… he knew that there were many, many serious allegations and there was evidence to support those allegations of this individual doing irregular acts in respect of nationality certificates and the application process. He made a deliberate, conscious decision to appoint him with responsibility for Immigration and to confer on him the specific authority which he did not have…” Fonseca said.
The Opposition Leader underscored the need for “a full and impartial inquiry.”
“It’s been, I think, 42 days since the United Democratic Party representative for Cayo North East was forced or asked to resign from Cabinet, for what has come to light as… corruption acts of facilitating the issuance of a Belize passport to an international criminal who was sitting in a Taiwanese prison cell. The reality is that the Belizean people have more questions than answers. Forty-two days later, there still is no independent investigation,” said Fonseca.
On Friday morning, Barrow also introduced amendments to the Passport Act, Chapter 164 of the Laws of Belize: “The amendments are intended to widen the net to capture all persons who facilitate the issuance of a passport without lawful authority and knowingly issue [them] contrary to provisions to [the] Act,” said Barrow, adding that the law is also intended to deal with those who engage in unlawful conduct for the purpose of obtaining benefit for himself or another person.
Barrow also announced that “…a new nationality certificate is being introduced with security features.”
Those features include a photo scan and fingerprint feature. The signatures of a member of a Scrutinizing Committee not connected with the Immigration Department and the Commissioner of Supreme Court who administers the oath of allegiance would be required to validate the document.
A statutory instrument will be made to set out the new prescribed form, the Prime Minister added.
He also spoke of the introduction of 5 new sections within the Immigration Department, and these units will focus on customer care, investigation, processing of applications, quality assurance and delivery, and enforcement. He said that the separation of processes is being instituted “to assure greater accountability and a greater system of checks and balances.”
The Government will shortly announce office closures to facilitate the changes, the Prime Minister indicated. The closures may span two weeks in the first instance, but may extend to a month.
As for the Opposition’s call for the passport/visa scandal to be properly investigated, Barrow announced the following: (1) Assistant Commissioner of Police Russell Blackett has interviewed persons in the Department and has also received the files turned over by attorney Arthur Saldivar; (2) the Financial Intelligence Unit is proceeding with its investigation into Penner; and (3) the Auditor General on October 15th gave Government notice of its intention to carry out a comprehensive investigation and audit over issuance of passports and nationalities. (Barrow said that the Auditor General’s work started on Monday, October 28, 2013.)
For its part, though, the Opposition People’s United Party has called for an independent Senate investigation. Despite resistance from the ruling party, Fonseca previewed a motion today which PUP Senator Lisa Shoman is expected to table at the next sitting of the Senate.
“In my view, that is an absolutely misconceived and misguided attempt by the Opposition to grandstand. They have absolutely no moral authority to grandstand, in view of their history,” Barrow said.
He said that the Opposition needs to wait until the Auditor General produces her report; otherwise, the Senators would be “chasing their tail.”
Barrow said, “It is not that the UDP is always right; it is that the PUP is always wrong and the people know that…”
He outlined in Parliament what he called the “sorry, sordid saga of corruption and serial violations” in Immigration by the Opposition People’s United Party. He said that when a former Attorney General, Orvin Nicholas, attempted to conduct a similar investigation into the Economic Citizenship Program back in the 1990s, to inquire of $7.5 million that went missing under the tenure of former Prime Minister Said Musa, the Auditor General did not receive their cooperation.
Barrow said that had the financial transparency regulations being put in place, which now carry penalties, been in place then, when the $7.5 million went missing, the accused would have landed up in jail.
Musa was adamant in his objection, saying that Barrow had made serious imputations against him that he committed a crime and he demanded a retraction – which he did not receive.
The Speaker of the House, Michael Peyrefitte, said that the Opposition Leader had, likewise, imputed an improper motive to Prime Minister Barrow in relation to Penner’s appointment in the Ministry of Immigration and Nationality. Fonseca said Barrow knew what he was getting into, and inviting trouble. “That is also the imputation of an improper motive,” Peyrefitte said.
Barrow went on to say that the former Auditor General had found that $7.5 million didn’t go to the Government’s coffers, when those fees were waived, raising the question of whether “somebody didn’t collect part of it under the table?”
Again, Musa insisted that Barrow withdraw his statement, making an imputation against him.
“If the truth be told… he should tell the nation that when his government under Esquivel returned to office, they targeted me,” Musa replied. He said that Nicholas did a biased audit and that is why he refused to talk to him.
“We do not receive the funds. If monies are missing, how can you say a minister is responsible for that? This nonsense of my committing a crime has got to stop, because you know damn well that is not true,” Musa maintained.
“Let us move away from the member for Fort George, in terms of his own culpability with respect to the 7.5 million dollars… Let us talk about when the Immigration scandal which broke in 2002, when Musa was then Prime Minister…,” said Barrow in response.
Barrow also recalled that the passport scandal involved former Immigration Minister Maxwell Samuels, whose visa was later revoked by the US Government.
Opposition Leader Fonseca told Barrow to “deal with the rot sitting next to you,” referring to allegations made at a recent meeting in the US with Belizean-Americans, where Barrow spoke of the Ministry of Natural Resources as “a hotbed of corruption.”
“My point, from which I will not be deterred, is to show the clear difference between the People’s United Party and the United Democratic Party and to make the case that when wrong occurs over here it will be set right and that when wrong occurred over there it was placed on stilts and compounded by cover ups and reward,” Barrow said.
He said that instead of the Musa administration firing Samuels, they offered him another ministerial post – which, in his view, amounted to a promotion.
As for Penner, Barrow said, “the punishment we meted out was swift and condign.”
Barrow went on to say that his administration endorses all the investigations that are taking place.
“We embrace sunlight as the best disinfectant for our administration, our party and our country,” he said.
Whereas today’s exchange may have sounded like a debate over the newly introduced immigration, nationality and passport amendments; the real debate on the bills introduced in response to the Penner passport debacle, has yet to come, since the bills were merely tabled today. The verbal crossfire took place on adjournment of the House meeting.
In other Parliamentary news Friday, the House was apprised of changes to the Criminal Code (Amendment) Bill #1, which was passed back from the Senate for refinement, such as clarification of the provision dealing with insider trading.
It also received the Development Finance Corporation’s Annual Report 2012. The House also finalized the High Seas Fishing Bill, the Medical Practitioners Bill, the DFC Debt Relief and Write-off Motion 2013 for $6.22 million, and the Write-Off of Old Loans Motion 2013 for $113.4 million, entitled “Write-Off of Old Loans Motion”—$17.2 million in principal and $96.2 million in accumulated interest”.
The controversial Criminal Code (Amendment) #2 Bill—which deals with changes to the sexual offenses provision and which has been called “the Gender Neutral Rape Bill”—had to be held back to ensure that changes, proposed to the House Committee which is tasked with leading the stakeholder review on legislation, could be reflected before the bill goes back to Parliament.