The litigation war over the re-nationalization of Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL), which occurred in August 2009, is not over, and latest reports from Prime Minister Dean Barrow is that the former shareholders of Belize Telemedia Limited, of the Michael Ashcroft group, are suggesting that they should be compensated “in excess of a billion dollars.” That’s significantly higher than the $600 million price tag they had previously placed on the company – a figure also publicly challenged by the Government of Belize.
The investors had invoked the Belize-UK Investment Treaty, but the Government had won an injunction, granted in the Supreme Court of Belize, calling for a stay on that arbitration until the dispute is ventilated in the Belize court system.
Barrow said that the litigation war is “designed to bring this country on its knees, financially.”
In a special sitting of the Court of Appeal recently, the Ashcroft team has claimed that under that treaty, they should be paid maybe in excess of a billion dollars: “They are challenging the taking of BTL, saying it’s not constitutional; but at the same time, they [are] attempting to seek redress under UK Treaty.”
The Government of Belize got an injunction to stop them on the basis that they are already pursing the matter in our jurisdiction, said Barrow.
Pointing to recent controversy over amendments to the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, which members of the Ashcroft camp argue poses a threat to foreign direct investment, Barrow said: “All we did was to restate the common law and increase the sanctions for contempt of court, because our court, which we have to persuade on the basis of law, issued an injunction against them to tell them you can’t proceed with the arbitration until matters are sorted out; they ignore us.”
The Government, when it acquired BTL, said that it had intended to compensate the former shareholders; however, there has been disagreement over the financial compensation package.
“What they [the former shareholders] hope to recover from Belize is so very much more than merely the market value of the company, which is what the compensation here would prescribe,” said Barrow.
He said that the investors cannot justify the billion-dollar claim based just on market value, but have included the accommodation agreement given to them by the former Said Musa administration, and are also saying, “We must get something for the fact that we were not given equal treatment as nationals.”
“It is clear that Ashcroft and his hired hands mean to try and bring this country to its knees…,” Barrow claimed. “Well, I am here to tell him that he is in for a hell of a ride because we will fight, to the very last and I am confident that we will prevail.”
As to concerns over the repercussions of the litigation war for Belize, in light of the fact that Ashcroft’s party has only recently assumed control after winning the UK elections, Barrow was optimistic, saying that he doesn’t think they would operate at the level of interfering with Belize’s sovereignty to please an individual.
“I am prepared for whatever...,” said Barrow. “They are not going to bomb us; they are not going to attack us. And so how bad can it be? What are they going to do? Take away their training presence? It would be a serious blow, but it’s something we’d have to deal with.”
The Prime Minister also informed that he has asked the board of Belize Telemedia Limited, headed by Nestor Vasquez, to have the prospectus out for the divestment of BTL shares by September. He said that Belizeans should be buying their shares no later than the end of the year.
“The board has to order affairs and prepare a proper prospectus so Belizeans know exactly what they are buying into. ...I don’t want Belizeans who are 100% behind the nationalization to lose their ardor because they don’t see where the end game is,” he added.
According to Barrow, there is also pending litigation with respect to the $33.5 million debt for Universal Health Services, now Belize Healthcare Partners Limited, which the former administration had secretly given a sovereign guarantee, and later a secret loan note to be paid by the Government.
Recent press reports have indicated that the case of the Belize Bank versus the Association of Concerned Belizeans, along with the National Trade Union Congress of Belize, Senator Godwin Hulse and the Belize Medical and Dental Union, was approved to go to the Privy Council just last week, after the local courts declared the loan note unlawful.
It is one of the last cases to make it through the Privy Council’s door, as Belize shuts out its jurisdiction as its final appellate court, to open the doors, instead, to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
Explaining the transition from the Privy Council to the CCJ, Prime Minister Barrow elaborated: “Remember, we had amended the Constitution to go to the CCJ. All we are doing now is to bring the law into force and so as of the 1st of June, when the next session of our local Court of Appeal will take place, we are saying any decisions that the Court of Appeal makes from that day on will have to be made to the CCJ rather than the Privy Council.”
(Story based on the Tuesday, May 25, 2010, edition of The Adele Ramos Show)