BELIZE CITY–Last September, United States authorities unsealed a federal indictment in Brooklyn, New York, for five individuals and five companies in Belize’s offshore banking sector. With the cooperation of Belize’s law enforcement authorities, and particularly the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), a move was made to shut down the operations of the companies named in the indictment.
The FIU, additionally, in cooperating with the US, got a Supreme Court order to freeze the accounts of the individuals and companies named in the indictment.
That court order that the FIU had secured was overturned, however, by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin in hearings that were held in chambers. The FIU was ordered to unfreeze the accounts and to return the properties of the companies.
Two Bahamians, Rhon Knowles, 29 and Kelvin Leach, 34, who were named in the US indictment, were imprisoned under a provisional arrest warrant in accordance with the Extradition Treaty signed between Belize and the Unites States.
Supreme Court Justice Dennis Hanomansingh released Knowles and Leach on bail on September 29, 2014, after their attorneys convinced the court that their imprisonment was procedurally flawed.
Knowles and Leach were in the courtroom of Chief Magistrate Ann Marie Smith this morning, where case management for the US extradition request took place. The US extradition papers arrived in Belize on December 13, 2014.
Attorney Illiana Swift from the law firm of Courtenay and Coye held brief for Leach’s and Knowles’ attorneys, Eamon Courtenay, S.C. and Godfrey Smith, S.C., while government’s Senior Crown Counsel from the Solicitor General’s office Nigel Hawke represented the U.S.
The US indictment alleges that the individuals and companies named violated US securities and tax laws, and deprived the US government of $500 million US dollars in federal taxes.
This is the first time, however, that attorneys in Belize had succeeded in keeping persons whose extradition has been requested by the US out of prison.
Under the terms of the Extradition Treaty, once the requesting state (the US) issues an extradition request to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, that request is passed to the Chief Magistrate, who then signs a provisional arrest warrant for the person named in the request, and the person must be brought before the court as soon as possible.
This procedure was not followed when Leach and Knowles were hauled off to the Belize Central Prison on a provisional arrest warrant that was signed by a junior Magistrate without being taken before the court, and without the arrival of the necessary US extradition request.
During the bail application before Justice Hanomansingh, the judge asked how the men ended up at the Belize Central Prison. The newly appointed Solicitor General, Janet Jackson, could not answer the question.
At the end of the bail application hearing, Hanomansingh declared that he did not know how the two men ended up at the prison, and so he offered them bail of $100,000 plus two sureties of $50,000 each.
The judge ordered them to surrender their travel documents and to report to the police station twice per week, every Monday and Friday, between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., and also they are not to leave the jurisdiction without the permission of the Supreme Court.
During today’s hearing, the defense indicated to the court that they will raise objections and Hawke told the court that he will need at least three weeks to respond to the defense’s submissions.
The court agreed that by February 26, the government will respond to the defense submissions and a hearing date has been set for March 12, at 10:30 a.m.
Knowles and Leach still have an FIU charge of failure to declare funds pending in the Magistrate’s Court before Senior Magistrate Sharon Frazer. Their case has been adjourned to January 15, when the FIU is expected to make submissions in an attempt to convince the court to accept into evidence the US $6,000 that one of the men had in his possession when they were arrested on September 13 at the Philip Goldson International Airport. The FIU case against Leach is in jeopardy due to a missing $11 BZ (eleven) from a manila envelope that forms part of the evidence against him.