Headline — 29 June 2016 — by Rowland A. Parks
Santa Cruz 13 freed of bogus assault charges

PUNTA GORDA, Toledo District, Mon. June 27, 2016–Today was set as the date for the commencement of the Crown’s case in Punta Gorda Magistrate’s Court, against the remaining 11 out of 13 Mayans from Santa Cruz, who were accused of common assault and aggravated assault against Rupert Myles, a Belizean of Creole descent, accused of building a house on sacred Mayan land.

Instead of the case going forward after 102 days since it made its way onto the court’s calendar, however, it was struck out by Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, who, in a letter to Chief Magistrate Ann Marie Smith, said it would not be in the interest of justice to continue the case.

The case against the Santa Cruz 13, as the group came to be later known, had attracted both national and international attention. As recently as Wednesday, June 22, comments that were critical of the prosecution of the Mayas were made in a press release from Minority Rights Group International (MRG), captioned “Prosecution of Maya in Belize politically motivated and evidence of inequality before the law, says MRG.”

MRG’s Senior Legal Officer, Carla Clarke, noted in the release: “The involvement of Belize’s most senior public prosecutor in what would otherwise be a common case of assault… clearly shows that this is in fact no common case, but a politically motivated prosecution aimed at silencing the voice of Cristina Coc and the MLA more generally.’”

In a letter to Chief Magistrate Ann Marie Smith which was dated May 10 and copied to two of the defense attorneys in the case, Audrey Matura-Shepherd and Magnusson Coc, the DPP had apologized for having to seek another adjournment due to additional evidence that she wanted to introduce in the case by way of a video recording that was in one of the Mayan languages, that she felt was crucial to both sides in the case. The case was supposed to have resumed today with the introduction of the new evidence that the DPP had wanted to present.

The Santa Cruz Maya, however, though vindicated today in court, have filed a civil claim against the government and have named Rupert Myles as an interested party in the claim, which is scheduled to have its first hearing in the Supreme Court on July 18, Christina Coc, the MLA activist who was one of the Santa Cruz 13, confirmed to Amandala this evening.

Attorney and activist, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, who represented some of the Santa Cruz Maya, told Amandala that the case was political, but when prodded to specify whose politics was the driving force behind the case, she responded, “I can’t say.”

Matura-Shepherd said that the last time the case was adjourned in May, the DPP had claimed that she had new evidence. “But we have not been given that evidence,” Matura-Shepherd said.

Two of the Mayas who were originally charged and against whom the charges were dismissed, were not even there when the incident occurred, “and their names were not even called,” Matura-Shepherd said, referring to Reymundo and Oligurio Sho.

The case was adjourned on ten different occasions, but not once did Rupert Myles ever attend the hearing.

“Joseph Estephan [a resident of Punta Gorda] and Silva Gillett, his common-law wife, aided and abetted Myles,” when they took him, Myles, to a meeting that the Maya were having, Matura-Shepherd alleged.

The image of Rupert Myles, who had been tied and handcuffed by the Maya to restrain him, provoked discussions across the country and Prime Minister Dean Barrow, when he heard the news, made remarks to the effect that the villagers had lost whatever moral high ground they had, and that he would see if any of them could be criminally charged for their acts, because that kind of behavior was in his view intolerable.

Following Prime Minister Barrow’s remarks, early in the morning on the following day, heavily armed members of the Gang Suppression Unit and police from other units descended on Santa Cruz in a predawn raid and 13 Mayas were arrested and taken to the Toledo Magistrate’s Court to be criminally charged.

Initially, they were facing charges of unlawful imprisonment, common assault and aggravated assault, but the charge of unlawful imprisonment fell by the wayside six months after they were first charged with it.

Coc told Amandala that two of the attorneys on the case asked the reason why the case was discontinued.

“In our opinion, they had no case from the beginning. They were never able to put together the evidence of neither common assault nor false imprisonment. They couldn’t find the evidence. At the last adjournment in May, they claimed that they had evidence in the form of a video,” Coc said.

Myles had desecrated a Maya site. “He still lives there. But we have filed a civil suit against the state and named Rupert Myles as an interested party”, Coc disclosed.

She added that Santa Cruz was one of the first Mayan villages to affirm the property rights of the Mayas, so the lawsuit would seek to have Myles vacate the sacred site and an expert evaluate the damages that he had caused to the site.

Coc said that the case was politically motivated, because the intent was to show the rest of Belize that the Mayas would discriminate against them based on their race. That is simply not true, Coc said.

The Mayas have tried in many ways to have Myles move from where he had erected his structure, on the Uxbenka Mayan monument, but that just did not work, and when Myles went to a meeting that the Mayas were having and allegedly threatened them, the alcaldes ordered his arrest.

This morning the Toldeo Alcaldes Association issued a press release on the decision of the DPP to discontinue the case against the Santa Cruz 13, and also confirmed that the state had no intention to bring new charges against the Mayas in the future concerning that incident.

“The Maya Leaders Alliance welcomes this decision and congratulates the Director for acknowledging the innocence of the 13 accused, who, along with their families, suffered incalculable hardships as a result of their arrest and prosecution. This was never a case about the difference between Belizean and the Maya customary law. This was always a case about the constitutional rights of poor people of Belize and whether not officials would respect the rule of law,” the release said.

The release continued, saying, “While Mr. Myles’ actions were wrong, it is important to note the CCJ order did not take away rights from other citizens in Belize. What the CCJ order did was to place additional responsibilities on citizens and government, and private companies to consult with and obtain on-going consent from Maya villages before engaging in any activities in any village…”

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