Despite the imminent arrival of Tropical Storm Matthew, several pieces of new legislation, including the Interception of Communications Bill and the Criminal Code Amendment Bill, were pushed through to their third and final reading when the House of Representatives met in Belmopan last Friday, September 24, 2010.
This might have been the first time that a House meeting was held as the country was preparing for the arrival of a storm.
The Bill that got the most attention at the House session was perhaps the so-called Wiretap Bill, known formally as the Interception of Communications Bill that would allow the police to wiretap telephone and other communications of citizens, after a Supreme Court judge signs a wiretap other.
Members from the Opposition side were particularly critical of this particular piece of legislation. But the Opposition Leader had to wage his battle inside the House without three of his parliamentarians who did not attend the meeting; Mark Espat, Cordel Hyde and Florencio Marin Jr. had absented themselves from the House meeting.
Opposition Leader John Briceno said, “Basically what is going to happen is that Big Brother is going to be watching! They are going to be watching on everything that we do.
“Just last year, Mr. Speaker, here in this Honorable House the Honorable Member of Belmopan got up and boasted that he intercepted a copy of my speech and the law doesn’t even exist.
Remember for the budget debate he got up and said, “See, I intercepted your email,” this is already happening even before the law is put in place!”
In rebuttal to Briceno’s presentation, Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow told the House the Police Department had provided the government with a long list of wiretap activities dating back to October 1981, shortly after Belize had gotten political independence.
Not only had Prime Minister George Price ordered wiretaps, but his Minister of Home Affairs responsible for the police, C.L.B. Rogers, had signed several of the wiretap warrants.
UDP Minister of Police Curl Thompson had also relied on wiretaps, the record shows.
Barrow also asserted he has the evidence that the Musa administration used wiretaps, to which the former Prime Minister Said Musa, now the Opposition Member for Fort George, replied: “You can have the evidence that our government did so and so, but you can never have evidence that I did anything like that.”
Barrow: “The police also make the point in their report that during the last administration — let’s forget George Price and let’s forget what happened way back when — during the last administration headed by the member of Fort George, the police continued to intercept communication of members of the public; this time doing so without using any warrants. And since it’s not just what the police say. Since we took over Telemedia, you see, it was confirmed to us by Telemedia people that under your last government, Dean Boyce gave instructions upon the request of your government, the government of the member for Fort George ran wires from the exchange at St. Thomas Street to a room on the ground floor of the Raccoon Street police station, and used that infrastructure to tap landlines.”
The government’s new get-tough-on-crime measures take the form of three specific amendments that would hand out stiffer penalties for violators. These were also hotly debated.
The Criminal Code Amendment Bill increased the penalties for rape, attempted murder, carnal knowledge and other violent or sexual offences. The Amendment to the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act stiffens the penalties for crimes related to gang activities. The amendment to the Firearms Act sets out a whole slew of increase punishment for unlicensed firearm and ammunition possession. The new get-tough measures also raises the threshold for the granting of bail.
Musa weighed in on the new crime prevention measures saying that: “Under this Bill a person charged with being in possession of an unlicensed firearm can be denied bail for up to 2 weeks... that Bill which goes very far to include innocent people, who will be caught in this net of being denied bail for 2 weeks....”
Briceno added, “There is going to be under this, Mr. Speaker, a lot of people who are going to be caught up in the net, taken to the police station and these people, many of them are going to be innocent and have no access to bail. Ministers will know; they are going to be knocking at their door saying that you know my father, my wife, my brother, my sister is in jail and they can’t get bail.
Quite likely they are going to be innocent. I am not talking about the guilty ones, the guilty ones; you are supposed to throw away the key, I don’t have a problem with that.”
As the debate drew to a close, Prime Minister Barrow defended his government’s new law saying that: “When the Leader of the Opposition gets up and he says that in the Bill we are increasing to 14 days the notice that must be given to the bail hearing, he - perhaps I can understand - he is not a lawyer. But then again, this business of your not wanting to go to school comes back to haunt you. Man, the Bill is right in front of you! Before the hearing for application for bail, the court shall be given notice of not less than 10 working days; where do you see 14? Where do you see 14? It say 10 working days, in any event I will forgive the Leader of the Opposition.
“I can’t forgive the member for Fort George, absolutely never ever. All we are doing is to strengthen the provisions of a law that was introduced into the National Assembly and passed by the government headed at the time by the member for Fort George”
Barrow accused Musa of coming down on the side of the criminals and said it is regrettable that some innocent people might get caught in the so-called net, but the government will do what it has to do to bring crime under control.