Editorial — 08 June 2019
Political BTL, No justice, Defunct PAC

There was a legal hurdle our present government had to cross to reacquire BTL. The company, under private ownership, had made interconnection seem impossible for rivals, had not encouraged voice over internet, had not been respectful to the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) — the government’s utilities regulator, and it was felt that a change in ownership was necessary for the greater good. The PUP had tried to pry away the telecommunications company from the owner, and sell it to another owner. The PUP was not successful.

The UDP, when it came to power in 2008, almost immediately moved to nationalize BTL, and the decision did not go unchallenged. The lawyers for the owners argued that it was unconstitutional for the government to take away a private company. We know that the government won in court, in 2010, and then the government lost in court, in 2012, and when the matter arrived at the Caribbean Court of Justice for a final resolution, the government and the owner, or a representative of the owner, cut a deal.

The Amandala, in its headline story of 15 September, 2015, “Barrow and Ashcroft negotiate BTL settlement,” by Rowland A. Parks, reported PM Barrow saying, on the settlement, “I am extraordinarily pleased to be able to make this announcement… I will sit as I tell you this fantastic bit of good news, that the Government of Belize has settled the BTL issue…

“We have reached an agreement with the former shareholders of BTL and the BTL Employees Trust and the British Caribbean Bank Limited…Lord Michael Ashcroft has always insisted that he had no financial interest in BTL. I am prepared to take that at face value, but in the interest of full disclosure he was the person with whom I negotiated.

“He was doing this [negotiation], according to his words to me, as a sort of Good Samaritan, on a kind of pro bono basis…Ink was put to paper last Friday and tomorrow we will take to the House a bill for an act to appropriate further sums of money in order to pay compensation and we will also [table] the Telecommunications Settlement Act 2015.”

Clearing the legal hurdle came at overwhelming cost. Incredibly, Belize still doesn’t know how much our government paid out in legal fees to reacquire BTL. Belize was astounded by the price the so-called Good Samaritan, working pro bono, won for the group(s), company(s) he negotiated for, represented.

The people did not come out on top here. We were overwhelmed by legal fees, and we were overwhelmed by the cost of the acquisition. After being overwhelmed, twice, we still held great hope that the government would not let us down again.

The capitalists argue that when government controls businesses, things always go awry. Things did not go right with BTL. After the acquisition the government proceeded to show to the world that a government like ours, which is one that operates in a system that gives it a free run, cannot run a public utility. The government hasn’t made a total mess of the operations of the public company, but families and friends of those in power have received plums, and because government officials did that, we know as night follows day that the company will be used to help keep the present government in power.

Another area where we have been disappointed, and are being disappointed, is in the criminal justice department. We pointed out in a recent editorial that a major argument for doing away with the death penalty was the finality of it.

When a person is put to death there can be no resuscitation of the unfortunate person if later evidence proved the person’s innocence. It was argued by enlightened people that it was better for 10, 100 murderers to go free than for one innocent person to be put to death. It is surprising that in a country where our only punishment for murder is incarceration, that same argument is applied.

It is true that if the state finds that it has erred in sending a person to prison, it cannot give back the person the time they spent behind bars. It is certain that it is a tragedy to incarcerate an innocent person, but incarceration is not comparable to capital punishment.

We have heard a lawyer discuss an acquittal he won for his client, because eyewitnesses didn’t get the precise color of the shirt of the accused murderer as he dashed from the murder scene. The state really should be less fearful of making an error in a country that doesn’t have the death penalty. For the good of the state we have to tolerate such errors. If we gave the necessary tools to our law enforcement officers, we could keep failures in the system to a minimum.

We have heard of the numerous technicalities that provide the escape hatch for men who all the evidence indicates are factually guilty. The failure of our criminal justice system made a household word out of a strictly legal term – “nolle pros” (nolle prosequi).  The website definitions.uslegal.com says “a motion for nolle prosequi is a motion by a prosecutor or other plaintiff to drop legal charges, usually in exchange for a diversion program or out-of-court settlement.” In Belize the term meant end of case, punto final.

Recently, our Department of Prosecution got tired of being accused by the public of ineptitude, so they decided to go for manslaughter, the less ambitious charge in cases of death by violence. Interestingly, the watered down manslaughter charge may have an unintended benefit.

Although our country doesn’t hang people anymore, it may be in the backs of the minds of persons accused of murder that the death penalty is not officially dead. The death penalty is terrifying, even to the executioner. Manslaughter officially doesn’t carry the death penalty, so it is possible that this lesser charge could make the lives of witnesses safer.

The arguments for/against the nationalization of BTL and about improving the justice system are subjects that require heavy thinking. Operating the basic systems of governance should not tax anyone’s brains. These systems are in place for the purpose of ensuring that the people elected by the people focus their efforts on the best interests of those who elected them.

There are times when these systems are deficient. Then, a government that has the best interests of the citizens at heart sets about to repair them.

In Belize, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the prime example of a system that is not functioning for the people. When the aggressive PUP representative from Cayo South, Honorable Julius Espat, insisted that the UDP government opened the books to reveal all they had done in the 2008-2012 government, the UDP, in the person of either Honorable Patrick Faber or Honorable John Saldivar, or both, agreed, with the condition that they begin with the records of a past PUP government. The result of that debate was a stalemate.

To this day the books on government spending remain closed. The government continues to spend, and the Public Accounts Committee continues to ignore the books. They, the PUP and UDP, can argue about which party started us on the wrong track here. We know which party has us on the wrong track now, which party is conducting the people’s business behind a veil.

What concerns us doesn’t seem to matter. BTL continues to be primed as a political tool; on the gravest criminal matter the justice system has little response, and the accounts of government business remain hidden from light.

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Deshawn Swasey

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