Dangerous powers, entire country can be declared crime-ridden
The last sitting of the House of Representatives for this year was convened today. A number of Bills came up for second and third readings but the most controversial was an amendment to the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act. Several changes were proposed and passed, which the opposition described as draconian since it moves authority from the Crime Control Council to the National Security Council to designate crime ridden areas across the country. The law now has no defined parameters and can, in an extreme case, be used to designate the entire country as crime-ridden. The minister also has been granted sweeping powers to the hours during which a neighborhood can be declared as crime ridden. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The introduction of the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Bill 2012 on November thirtieth, and its subsequent reading in the House of Representatives today, has become one of the most highly debated pieces of proposed legislation to be tabled before parliament this year. The bill seeks to update and bolster stipulations under which crime-ridden areas are designated.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“The main objectives here are to ensure that the delay and near frustration that occurred recently when the Minister of National Security wished to make a declaration that those delays and frustrations not be repeated. We had difficulty because the way the law is currently structured the minister needs the concurrence of the Crimes Control Council.”
Since that body, according to Prime Minister Barrow, has been obsolete for some time now, government has moved to empower the Minister of National Security with the authority to declare certain areas of Belize City as violent. The measure, according to the opposition is rather harsh.
Said Musa, Area Representative, Fort George
“The thing that concerns me Mr. Speaker, and I believe many on this side of the House, is that we have become so desperate in the face of the spiraling crime situation in our country that we seem prepared to go to extreme measures with Draconian laws that were never implemented before, from 1994 until now. But in the execution of such harsh laws we may be trampling on the fundamental rights and freedoms of people in this country. These are very wide, sweeping powers, Mr. Speaker, given to the security forces and although the law talks about acting in a manner that is reasonable, reasonably justified, we all know that there are many cases where excessive force is used and abused against citizens.”
In defending government’s proposal, however, Minister of National Security John Saldivar pointed to what he considers a significant drop in the number of crimes, particularly homicides, that are being committed in these areas.
John Saldivar, Minister of National Security
“Since we have implemented the crime-ridden strategy, major crimes in Belize City has gone down by thirty-eight percent. That is why we have now taken a second look at the crime-ridden areas law to see how we can improve on it because we believe we are onto something. Everybody knows that we still have a murder problem in this country. This year, obviously now, we are surpassing last year’s figures for murder. That points to other problems other than the police department. In Belize City, we have been successful in the last month and a half and we believe that by the end of this year we will have been able successfully in bringing down the major crime rate in this country and, in no small part, to the fact that we have implemented this new strategy.”
But while that new strategy is lauded, concerns are being raised about the apparent open-endedness of the proposed law.
“Let us assume that they want to declare Belize City a crime-ridden area, not just south side, north side, everywhere crime-ridden, do they have the police, the security forces to cordon off Belize City? Lock it down as they have been doing with parts of Lake Independence, Mr. Speaker. And don’t forget that with these new amendments the lockdown will not be confined to three hours, it’s the whole day, eight hours that’s what they want to imprison people in their homes.”
Despite the objections raised during today’s sitting, the government side is expected to give support for passage of the Bill. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.
The House signed off at about five-forty this evening after it had dealt with a number of other bills including the domestic and financial institution bill, the income tax (avoidance of double taxation) bill and the statistical institute of Belize amendment bill. Two other bills also got the nod from the house; the Trafficking in Persons and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children bills.