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Commentary: The sad state of governance and justice in Belize
Published on February 11, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Frank Edward Paco Smith, Jr. JP

Recently, in Belize, there was the case of Belize Police Corporal Gino Peck, a well-respected officer, who was charged with the possession of unlicensed ammunition. It is both a peculiar, yet enlightening case in that it demonstrated: (1) the crass nature of amendments to the Firearms Act of 2008 and 2010 and its appropriateness, (2) the manner in which this act can conceivably be used as a tool of oppression, (3) the vulnerability of citizens involving this abominable piece of legislation and (4) the existence of a variety of other-relevant issues.

paco_smith.jpg
Paco Smith staunchly advocates the emergence of civil society to serve as a proactive force toward positive change within the policy development arena. Among his many involvements, he is a co-founder of the group Belizean Patriots against the ICJ.
In the case of Corporal Peck, his home was searched and yielded an amount of ammunition and a firearm, for which he had no documentation. The matter culminated last week with the case going to trial. The outcome came in the form of what I deem, from a layman's standpoint, a good example of temperance concerning the matter, the law and mitigating circumstances. In effect, the Chief Magistrate used discretion afforded her by way of a section of the law, a summary jurisdiction procedure act, which created the latitude to impose a fine versus that of the mandatory jail sentence which is called for in the Firearms Act - http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=27766&frmsrch=1

With that said, I must confess this is a compelling case, especially given the potential impacts for the future. On the surface, its mere existence speaks to: (1) the need to revise the law, (2) the appearance that considerable malice very well may have been involved as to why Corporal Peck was singled out, (3) why was the matter not dealt with internally (e.g. via disciplinary channels within the Police Department), (4) the need to uncover who precisely is calling the shots in the Police Department and (5) whether there is a political dynamic or influence which fuelled the entire matter. These questions come to mind primarily because by all accounts, Corporal Peck, is an upstanding officer and citizen. The level of support expressed by his fellow officers, was in and of itself, impressive. In addition, among those who served as his character witnesses, was none other than the current Commissioner of Police - http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=27757&frmsrch=1

I shall state across the board, that no-one is above the law! In the case of Corporal Peck, there were mitigating circumstance and as such, matters resulted accordingly. In fact, if I am not mistaken, a local newscast alluded to an aspect of the Act which states that persons in the employ of the security forces, by virtue of the nature of their work, are exempt to certain elements of the Firearms Act. That, within certain respects, is somewhat reasonable. As a result, I am confident that the Chief Magistrate acted appropriately and imposed a fine, without jail time, on the corporal. The Lord was with him, for had he been committed to prison, the underpinning injustice of the matter would have been on full display. Therefore, I am pleased to know that Corporal Peck can presumably continue in his career as an officer of the law.

With the matter of Corporal Peck being for the most part determined, the shift now goes to the highly questionable Firearms Act itself and the nefarious manner in which it has been applied to regular, law-abiding citizens, long before it snared the corporal. For those who are not blind, it is clear that something serious is going-on behind the scenes. This evident because in the not too distant past, there was a case in which an individual with a criminal record was caught with an unlicensed firearm and/or ammunition and by virtue of the discretion of a police officer, he was inexplicably set free. This speaks volumes, especially given the parameters of Corporal Peck's case. Therefore, it doesn't take much to determine that there is more afoot than meets the eye.

I am happy to know that Corporal Peck's attorney plans to join with other legal minds "to draft a first of a kind constitutional motion to address mandatory imprisonment for firearm and ammunition offences…and by extension, they will look at other aspects of the Firearm Act as well" http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/95086  Albeit, definitely a step in the right direction, I beg to question…”What took so long for the legal fraternity to recognise this uncongenial law? My goodness, how many innocent persons, to-date, have been either detained or remanded simply because of either being in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply being the recipient of some sort of bad-mindedness on behalf of an unscrupulous individual?

This, in turn, leads to the meat of the matter… the sad state of governance and justice in Belize or simply put, the obvious lack of good governance which exists in my country. The case of Corporal Peck was only an introduction to this much larger bane on our society, which is instructive because beyond the brass within the Police Department, I can think of but only one, other arena from which such a directive could have derived. Earlier, I mentioned that ‘no-one is above the law…’ For me, that includes everyone, with a highlight specifically on politicians. Of course, for those who are attuned to the goings-on in Belize, this is but an ideal, one on which our society has fallen considerably short of achieving.

Concerning numerous instances which, from an ethical standpoint, it can be easily discerned that many a politician and seated Representative has and in many instances, continues to engage in instances of blatant graft and wrongdoing, one need not look any further than the daily newscasts in order to provide a clear example of this. Each day, the exploits of our supposedly “Honourable” Representatives are exposed for all who dare dwell within the realm of reality. Two of the most immediate and vexing examples involve current Area Representatives Elvin Penner and Edmund Castro. You will note than the prefix “Hon.” accompanies neither of their names. In the case of Cayo North East Area Representative Elvin Penner, it centres around his outright blatant involvement in a passport scheme, which created a spectacular international buzz, as it was proven that he facilitated the procurement of a Belizean passport for a South Korean fugitive, Won Hong Kim, who was jailed in Taiwan at the time the passport was delivered. To boot, the person in question never has stepped foot in Belize -http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/94582

Mr Penner’s colleague in the legislature, none other than the Belize Rural North Area Representative, Edmund Castro, is the second Minister of State who is currently embroiled in controversy. In the first instance, a female protocol officer of the Taiwanese government claimed she was the recipient of negligent behaviour by Mr Castro, during one of his official visits to that nation - http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=26808. His self-inflicted troubles were on display again, when word of a visa scandal, from out of the Ministry of Immigration and Nationality broke, in which he was accused as being a major player in the unlawful scam - http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/92469. Most recently the matter of his implicit involvement in the ongoing practise of utilising funds from the Belize Airports Authority in a less-than-reputable fashion, has surfaced - http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/94634

Here we find ourselves in a nation in which the head of government, none other than the prime minister himself, has the gall to tell the nation (and by extension the world), that the actions of the minister of state, Edumund Castro, were "ill-advised", "wrong", (yet) "not corrupt" - http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=27659&frmsrch=1 

Apparently in-sync with some warped sense of personal jurisprudence, in the ongoing matter of Mr Penner’s misgivings, one need not be surprised that in this instance, much like that of the aforementioned, the PM initially (in early October 2013) attempted to circle the political wagons around his duly embattled political colleague http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/91118

Admittedly, being the astute politician he is, Mr Barrow did what I refer to as a “controlled 180 degree turn” and suggested, half-heartedly that should Penner resign. I say this without hesitation for those who are aware of the dynamics involved, politics is unfortunately characteristic of a considerable degree of: half truths, posturing and inevitably playing on the ignorance of the majority of the electorate. The PM, with his razor thin majority in the House of Representatives, is well aware that his administration can ill-afford to lose not even one seat. Therefore, after more evidence was uncovered regarding Penner’s transgressions, he did what almost any veteran politician would do. Unbeknownst to John and Jane Q. Public, the recommendation for Penner’s resignation was made, knowing full well that, given the legal parameters, Penner was under no obligation to do so; Thereby throwing the heat off of himself and squarely on Penner’s shoulders.

Although it pains me, and despite the delusion of the prime minister and his party faithful, I must admit that Belize’s system of governance is rife with widespread corruption. For those who hold no allegiance, but the betterment of the nation, the extent of it is indisputable. A colleague of mine recently penned an article in which he rightfully dubbed our nation as reaching the point of being a kleptocracy - https://www.facebook.com/notes/hubert-pipersburgh/the-cartel-like-nature-of-belizes-political-ruling-class-a-deformed-democracy-to/10201463490332445

It may seem harsh, but with the ever-mounting body of evidence which supports this notion, only those who are either (1) beneficiaries of the outright graft which has become commonplace or (2) just so detached from reality to the extent of being (for the lack of a better descriptor) comatose, are among those who might attempt to refute this truth. Basically, Belizeans must take off their ‘red and blue lenses’, so as to understand that blind faith in your political party of choice inevitably contributes to the further degradation of the nation.

Another colleague of mine put together a chronology of Belize’s governance that highlights the different phases through which the nation has evolved (or more suitably digressed), since independence. Needless to say, we have gone from a period of “hope” in 1981, straight through to where we currently find ourselves, which is being run by a government that epitomises “detached arrogance”.

This, I find interesting because in keeping with the notion that Belize is a kleptocracy, there is no question that the outright conceit as depicted by our elected officials has become par for the course. Not only are the current crop of corrupt politicians fleecing the nation’s resources, with impunity, they are also unrepentant. During 2013 the deputy prime minister, upon being asked about apparent acts of nepotism involving the distribution of land to his family, is quoted as saying, among other things, “…I am not a normal person in Belize. I work much harder than a lot of other people." - http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=23103&frmsrch=1. If that does not resonate as being indicative of conceit, I think nothing will.

Yet another example of the blatant disregard for our laws and complete and utter disrespect for that which makes us Belizean, was on full display in the destruction of one of the nation’s Mayan treasures, Nuh Mul. In this instance, an operative of the government bulldozed the ancient artifact and used its rubble as materials for a road contract. After weeks of waiting, he was charged and will more than likely face but a nominal fine. This is preposterous, for an irreplaceable part of Belize’s cultural heritage was purposefully destroyed, for financial gain. Under no circumstances can it be replaced and all the admitted perpetrator must do is pay a fine and continue along his merry way! Again, this is indicative of the decay from which our system suffers. - http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=25950&frmsrch=1

I wish to categorically state that my observations are in no way, an endorsement of the opposition, for they have demonstrated on previous occasions the very same modus operandi when faced with the reality of corruption within their ranks. Yet, heavy is the head that wears the crown and in this instance, the brunt of critique must be borne by the sitting government. Even within that context, the symbiotic nature shared between the PUP and the UDP is unmistakable.

Publicly, they put on an entertaining show in order to rile up their respective supporters, but in actuality, the principles understand that within the construct of the Westminster Model and its Belizean application, each has a role to play; meanwhile continuing their unbridled and unrestrained pilfering of the nation’s resources.

One such example of this unwritten collaboration involves the annual “Christmas Cheer” programme in which each duly elected area representative of the sitting government was allocated an additional amount of funds, to the tune of BZ$90,000 through which to provide assistance to their constituencies. On the flipside, each opposition area representative received BZ$25,000, with which to do the same. Yet on top of that, political officers of the ruling party, in the areas represented by duly-elected opposition reps, also received BZ$25,000 to share among their supporters. Yes you read correctly. Amid the numerous challenges which face the nation, a virtual slush fund was created and justified, in order to grease the palms of the politically well-connected - http://www.7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=27307&frmsrch=1. Indeed, this is our Belizean taxpayer dollars “at work”.

The opposition expressed disgust concerning the fact that in addition to providing funds to each area representative, in the constituencies in which the opposition won and represent, the government provided “caretaker representatives” with more funds than the duly elected reps. Admittedly, I have an inherent concern with the rationale upon which the entire programme is based, for although it brings fleeting relief to those in need, during the Christmas Holiday, it also increases the people’s level of dependency.

Of note, this is part and parcel of why Belizeans are in the quagmire in which we find ourselves. Both parties subscribe to these stop-gap practices in order to capitalise on short-term and dare I say, short-sighted gains. In this instance, had the opposition possessed even a modicum of credibility, I believe they should have outright rejected the Christmas Cheer funds, in order to send a clear message to the electorate that they are about real change. Inevitably, this did not occur, because let’s just say, like the government of the day, the opposition also has its priorities. Hence an example of the unwritten, yet mutually beneficial relationship shared by the two, predominant political parties in Belize. Of course, the net result for the people is the continued suppression and marginalisation of the majority.

These are but a few of the numerous instances of inequity which flourish amid Belize’s broken system of justice and decrepit state of governance. Last but not least, the PM recently provided a listless, deceitful and self-righteous account of corruption and its role in his administration. Given that the apparent modus operandi is, “party over country”, with the underlying rationale being that one must do whatever it takes to retain power, his illusiveness in addressing the matter appropriately did not come as a surprise. As is par for the course, instead of dealing with the substantive matter, he predictably deflected all of the factual issues as it relates to corruption that is taking place under his watch and nibbled at the periphery by way of extolling the virtues of what little has been accomplished - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1__mLfZjNCk

In sum, ranging from the despicable attempt by the powers that be to admonish Corporal Peck by way of an unprecedented move, to the intentional coddling of elected representatives who have demonstrated through their actions that they are everything but “Honourable”, onward to the misguided practices which are akin to the proverbial notion of giving someone a fish as opposed to teaching them to fish, Belize’s sad state of governance and justice is clear. For those in power and those who believe that their turn to reap the benefits is impending, your hypocrisy and deceit persists and with it comes the very unfortunate reality of cognitive dissonance among most of the electorate. Therein resides the makings of an unrelenting digression in the nation’s state of affairs.

Belizeans and true friends of we must recognise the writing which is so vividly depicted on the wall. The time is long overdue in which we must call a spade a spade and move beyond the narrow confines of the political dogma on which we were bred. It is time to broaden our horizons, to shift our paradigm and embrace that with which we are not yet acquainted, but to do so by virtue of the fact that intuitively, we are not satisfied with that to which we have subjected ourselves. Indeed, given that which unfortunately, has become commonplace, Belizeans must do what it takes to remove our nation from the kleptocratic grasp of the PUPD. It is only through this bold step that the sad state of governance and justice in Belize can be improved.

Without this fundamental change, the nation shall inevitably continue on its downward spiral, meanwhile further increasing the deficit between the “haves” and the “have nots”. To this I simply add that Albert Einstein’s view that “Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome, is the epitome of insanity”, is a more than accurate assessment of Belizeans’ voting history.

It is my hope that, as a nation, we soon reach that tipping point, for at our current pace if we do not wake up and be assertive, before long, there may not be much remaining, to salvage for our future generations.

Think about it…
 
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