Inside the House of Representatives, to the immediate right of the Prime Minister, sits a man who has been publicly accused of murder. Earlier this year, the Commissioner of Police was ordered by the Chief Justice to carry out a thorough investigation into the involvement of the Hon. Elvin Penner in the sale of a Belize passport to an indicted South Korean businessman who was locked up in a Taiwan prison when the said Belize passport was processed and flown to Taiwan for delivery to him. It really does not appear as if the Commissioner of Police made any serious effort to do as he was instructed to do in the Penner matter. So that, it is very, very difficult for the people of Belize to believe that the police will carry out a thorough investigation into the aforementioned murder allegation.
In fact, the accused murderer has gone on a legal offensive. He has retained the Prime Minister’s law partner to commence libel proceedings against his political opponent, the person he considers ultimately responsible for airing the murder allegation on national radio, and so that political opponent must shut his mouth or risk aggravating whatever damages the courts may award to the plaintiff, who, to repeat, sits next to the Prime Minister in the House.
The defendant, who is the Opposition PUP standard bearer in the UDP plaintiff’s constituency, has retained the former PUP Leader and Prime Minister (1998-2008) as his attorney. The defendant has refused to apologize, and so the case, as of now, is headed to court. It was unprecedented, we think, when a leading attorney who was a senior PUP Cabinet Minister between 1998 and 2003, went on national television on Monday night, November 17, to suggest that the defendant should consider withdrawing his allegations.
The police’s handling of the Penner passport matter caused the people of Belize to lose a quantum of confidence in our judicial system. The basic problem is that the ruling UDP holds too narrow a seat margin in the House of Representatives, 17 to 14 over the Opposition PUP, and around the same time the UDP were under pressure because of Penner’s predicament, there was also a lot of controversy surrounding their Belize Rural North area representative, Edmond Castro. If investigations had created public pressure for both Penner and Castro to resign, forcing bye-elections in their two constituencies, and if the PUP had won those two seats, then the PUP would have held a 16-15 majority in the House and the Governor-General would have had to swear in the PUP’s Hon. Francis Fonseca as Prime Minister.
From an executive and political standpoint, then, UDP Prime Minister Dean Barrow felt that his government had to do all that lay within their power to protect the 17-14 status quo. The Bible, you know, speaks of the letter of the law and it speaks of the spirit of the law. We are a country run by laws in Belize, but it is human personalities who hold the substantive positions which uphold, interpret, and enforce those laws. The laws do not, in real time, exist in a societal vacuum. The laws exist within an environment controlled by the executive, an executive, in the case of Belize today, which is UDP and partisan because of their having won a 17-14 majority in general elections held in March of 2012. The laws declare certain dicta in words. But words are not scientifically precise. In practice, dishonorable personalities can undermine the foundation purposes of the laws, just as honorable personalities can highlight the sincere spirit of the laws.
General elections are expensive, cumbersome, stressful processes. The political system schedules them for just once every five years. The political system allows elected governments in Belize, no matter how narrow their majorities, to behave with an executive power effectively greater than their numerical margins in seats. Once the Prime Minister is installed after general elections, the size of his opposition in House seats or the streets has never been a real factor in governance. There have been periods of crisis when the size of the opposition in the streets, such as 1968 (Seventeen Proposals) and 1981 (Heads of Agreement) has created a problem. But such crises have never forced new general elections.
Even though our political system always confers huge power on the Prime Minister no matter how narrow his margin of seats in the House, the first time a narrow victory occurred in a general election in Belize, in September of 1989 when the PUP won by a 15-13 seat margin, the PUP quickly moved to seduce the UDP Toledo West area representative, Stanley Usher, to cross the floor and join their government, thus giving them a more comfortable 16-12 margin. (Since that time, legislation has been passed in the House to make it impossible for an area representative to cross the floor without having to resign and force a bye-election for his seat.)
My point in this column is that the power realities are such, under our present system of governance, that our executive appears to have some undesirable influence on our judiciary. This is the opinion of many Belizeans. The judiciary is supposed to be independent of the executive. The goddess of justice is depicted as being blindfolded, hence unable to show personal preference for litigants because she cannot see who they are. In Belize recently and today, we citizens have gotten a sense that because the identity of some people who should be pursued and processed is known to the judicial system, pursuit and process suffer from partiality.
If we should, God forbid, ever lose the rule of law in Belize, we risk entering the kingdom of the jungle. The structural apparatus of the rule of law surely remains in place in Belize, but the Belizean people are no longer the true believers they used to be.
New general elections are one solution to some of the present negativity amongst the citizenry, but what if the new elections are just as close, or closer? Then, the conditions which tempt the executive to interfere with the judiciary would return. We have said to you that the political system we have has guaranteed strong governments even when their seat majorities are small. Our system exalts the executive. The ideal would be for the judiciary to be exalted, not the executive. But, what we have today is as the power structure desires it. In Belize, the system protects power structure personalities. They are superior to the rest of us.