“A person shall not be deprived of his personal liberty save as may be authorised by law…” per Section 5.-(1) the Constitution of Belize
I have been contemplating how often our people have been unfairly deprived of their freedom and how nonchalant the authorities are about it, despite the guaranteed protection of our right to liberty by our most supreme law, the Constitution of Belize.
The law also recognizes that there will be instances where for one’s good, the greater good of the public’s interest, or in execution of a lawful order, one’s liberty can be taken away. However, the ideology behind this is that the deprivation of one’s liberty will not be exercised lightly nor wantonly… it rather should be done justifiably and fairly and guarded zealously.
For me, however, I have seen the practice develop in this country in such a way that deprivation of one’s liberty is taken lightly and the ones with the power to carry out such deprivation exercise it too rapidly, excessively and abusively. I will show instances where, sadly, the only ones truly affected by these draconian laws are the poor.
Power to detain
Under our laws the police are given very wide and extensive powers to stop, search, detain, arrest and then prosecute in the name of the DPP. Imagine – the problem we are facing is two-fold. One, our people do not know their constitutional rights and therefore; two, the police abuse the situation by conducting themselves contrary to said rights and interest of our citizens. I have lamented too often that our children should be taught constitutional law at school so that these abuses can be curbed from that end.
To help educate our readers on this issue it must be noted that our Constitution at Section 5(2) states the following:
“(2) Any person who is arrested or detained shall be entitled-
(a) to be informed promptly, and in any case no later than twenty-four hours after such arrest or detention, in a language he understands, of the reasons for his arrest or detention;
(b) to communicate without delay and in private with a legal practitioner of his choice and, in the case of a minor, with his parents or guardian, and to have adequate opportunity to give instructions to a legal practitioner of his choice;
(c) to be informed immediately upon his arrest of his rights under paragraph (b) of this subsection; and
(d) to the remedy by way of habeas corpus for determining the validity of his detention.”
It is thus imperative that our people know that when they are arrested or detained they still have rights… especially the right to know why they are being deprived of their liberty, and the only time the police don’t have to tell you that immediately is where the circumstances genuinely do not permit. For example, if you are totally intoxicated (inebriated, drunk, stoned) clearly it is not practical for police to tell you as it makes no difference, or if the situation is so hostile that talking or explaining will not make any sense. However, sadly the practice in Belize has been that police just drag you off your bike, or out of your home or from your vehicle and when you ask what for, they disrespect you and lock you down for 48 hours without telling you why, or deprive you of your constitutional right to a telephone call, to speak with an attorney or for minors a parent or guardian as well. To make matters worse, sometimes this is after giving you a couple of blows and licks. This they get away with this because no one, or the masses, has instituted mass lawsuits against them, and constitutional motions against them for this breach.
Gun laws and quality of life
This abuse has been now more easily facilitated by the state, which, instead of focusing on proper policing and proper training of law enforcers, they have instead endowed them with even more power. Our politician/legislators have “solved” the problem by creating an even bigger problem.
My opinion is that the official sanction of police abuse by the state really materialized when the now Prime Minister, as then Minister of National Security, in his wisdom decided to enact the Crime Control Act and single out poor neighborhoods as hot spots. Under this law, specific areas were and have since been targeted and discriminated against by police, so much so that the trend is almost irreversible and the people have opted to live up to said reputation. This was compounded by the legal authority given to police to enter and search without a warrant once it is drugs and firearms/ammunitions that were being searched for… so for every search they claim this power and the poor families have no means to challenge it!
Ironically, the tone of the legislation made it seem that almost every area on the Southside of Belize City was a hotspot and that the only place where illegal drugs and weapons were and are is in these neighborhoods. The reality, however, is that the real cartel controlling the drugs and weapons in this country live on the Northside, or the outskirts, or in the Districts, or on islands, and their locales have not been designated as hotspots. The small fish involved in the petty drug and weapons trade are insignificant in the scheme of things, and rather only serve as a distraction to keep the system bogged down, the resources spread out thinly and the general populace distracted, while the kingpins live large, hold offices, set business as a front and build mansions as if their business is a legitimate one. They help finance campaigns and even are best friends with key law-enforcement officials. They are untouchable and will never have to worry about being detained, much less charged! Those in the police and politics on the take know who they are!
The situation has now escalated on the Southside with the introduction of the reformed firearm laws which mandates that all and sundry are to be arrested and refused bail at the first instance once a firearm or/and ammunition is found on a premises, including a vehicle. This law has raked in victims like a trawl net. The situation has recently been compounded by the quality-of-life petty offences, which are being implemented with such vigor, that once again another door of opportunity for police abuse has been facilitated…and they make full use of it. Imagine, I have met persons doing prison time for a bike without lights and Penner could not spend a day for simple police questioning!
For the arrested or detained
Through my lens, it appears that the persons who are trampled on by the police day in and day out are really the poor people. I am yet to see the wealthy and powerful dragged to court for drug or firearm charges. Imagine, Penner, is yet to be pulled in by police for basic profiling for passport and immigration offences…can you imagine him or other politicians even being dealt with for drug and firearm offences?
So I write this piece with the hope that the masses, especially the brothers, and more specifically the black brothers, would learn and know their constitutional rights. Even when detained or charged, the police must comply with proper protocols as laid out in the Constitution at Section 5(3) which states: “Any person who is arrested or detained-
(a) for the purpose of bringing him before a court in execution of the order of a court; or
(b) upon reasonable suspicion of his having committed, or being about to commit, a criminal offence under any law, and who is not released, shall be brought before a court without undue delay and in any case not later than forty-eight hours after such arrest or detention. [Emphasis mine]
Now I know the police love going beyond the 48 hours… they play the fool, yet citizens need to know that the first minute over that 48 hours gives them sufficient grounds to bring a constitutional case for unlawful deprivation of liberty. Any detention after that has got to be with an order of the court. Truth be told, our men, especially our youth, are so accustomed to the abuse that they do not bother complain and just go with the flow praying for the moment they will finally be released…until they are picked up for another 48 hours…and the cycle goes on.
Right to bail
At times, with no evidence or with little evidence, the police proceed to arrest and charge, knowing all too well the case will go nowhere, but getting away with it because at that stage the police is not forced to provide disclosure of the evidence that form the basis for the arrest. But this is one way in which the system allows them to abuse their power. Many a time without prima facie (on the face of it) evidence the police has a person arraigned and they just have to go with the flow even if at the end of the day they prove their innocence and the court sees there was no evidence from the start…but by then the person would have endured enough hardship that in their own way the police would have meted out their own punishment!
Again, the Constitution at Section 5(5) states:
“5(5) If any person arrested or detained as mentioned in subsection (3) (b) of this section is not tried within a reasonable time, then without prejudice to any further proceedings that may be brought against him, he shall, unless he is released, be entitled to bail on reasonable conditions.
Bail is a right, not a privilege, because our system says that you are innocent until the state, through the office of the DPP can prove your guilt! However, that draconian Section 16 of the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act Chapter 102 of the Laws of Belize, again the brainchild of our present Prime Minister, and all its amended forms, seeks to take away that automatic right to freedom as there are specific offences, such as possession of firearms, trafficking of drugs, carnal knowledge, and the list goes on…for which bail can no longer be offered by the magistrate, but only by the Supreme Court and that is after the office of the DPP has ten working days’ notice to respond. And this bail is costly…costly in terms of time and money. I will go into this issue at length next time as readers need to appreciate that the system is designed to oppress the weak and poor, and allows the positioned and powerful to evade its reach and enrich certain people at different levels!
God bless Belize!