Who can forget August of 2011, when the Gang Suppression Unit descended on George Street with a vengeance? That set in motion an entire chain of events that changed recent history – and ended up with a programme where city-wide gangs were basically paid to keep the peace.
Well, that programme has ended but the case continued in court. And now it has ended with Government agreeing to pay a settlement of one hundred and seventy five thousand dollars ($175,000).
It’s a major development because, since its inception, the GSU has been heavily criticized for its muscular style of enforcement and repeated allegations of excess.
Today, Daniel Ortiz spoke with the attorney for the George Street residents, and he put together a report examining the significance of the win against the GSU:
Daniel Ortiz Reporting
Who can forget the madness on George Street which unfolded on August 26, 2011? The residents claimed that the Gang Suppression Unit visited widespread abuse on them. That incident changed history for the country because members of the George Street Gang threatened retaliation against police and the populace in response to the beat-down.
The chain of events triggered thereafter were such that Prime Minister Dean Barrow had to cut short a diplomatic trip to organize a city-wide gang truce.
The result of that truce was that Government hired the gangs and paid them salaries to do community rehab works. That program gave critics of the Barrow Administration the fuel for some of their harshest condemnations: that the Government was negotiating with criminals, which it ought not to do.
And now, the Barrow Administration has to pay once again for the excesses of the GSU, which happened during the incident which started it all.
Kareem Musa - Attorney for George Street Claimants
"As you know, there was an incident which took place on August 26, 2011, whereby, the Gang Suppression Unit, the GSU, visited a residence on George Street. It was approximately 6 p.m. in the evening. They visited that residence in their camouflage uniform, with mask on and guns blazing, and pretty much, they terrorized the entire neighbourhood. At that particular residence, there was the funeral, a post-funeral gathering for Charles Woodeye, who had passed away, I think, a week before. And so, the residence were just gathering at this home to mourn the loss. They had just come from the burying ground, and they were mourning the loss. No offence were taking place; the people were not behaving unruly at that residence. But, for some reason, the Gang Suppression Unit, 3 truckloads full - a total of approximately 30 officers, full uniformed with masks on - went in and terrorized, and brutalized. It was totally unwarranted."
Believing that they had a case, those George Street Residents took the Government and the Police to court.
"I represented a total of 18 claimants in this action, and it's been going on for a year now, and today was the culmination of that case. It was set for trial today, and the counsel for the Government, he and I discussed the matter back and forth, and we finally arrived at a settlement. You see, the evidence was so overwhelming that there was absolutely no way that the Government of police could wiggle their way out of this one."
They submitted pictures of injuries, verbal statements, medical forms copies, and that recording of the GSU meeting which showed when they declared war on George Street.
FILE: MARCH 23, 2012
Voice of: GSU Officer
"What happened is that up to yesterday, the boss says that he will be embarking on, as he puts it, a 'War against George Street' because he finds it as a disrespect for them to have pulled up in the area and opened fire like that. Apparently the police and the GSU were in the area, and they still did something like that. So he finds it as a challenge, like they don't care. Anything that walks or crawls or runs on George Street that is what we will deal with. Anything outside of George Street, we still will deal with it but the main focus will be like before, the way we started: We will hit George Street. We don't have a specific code name for the operation, but we will class it as an operation to target George Street. The target today is the funeral of Charles Woodeye at 2pm. The boss says that he wants us to work the funeral -not to escort the funeral, but to drag out people from out the procession if we believe that they have anything illegal. Drag out the vehicles and search them, he says; he will take the heat. He says he doesn't mind taking the heat, but we just have to bring it on them. So we will have a detail this afternoon."
"Now, this is unprecedented, at least in my time as an attorney. It is totally unprecedented, to actually listen to a recording of a GSU meeting, where they premeditate an attack. They mentioned in that recording, that there's going to be a funeral for Charles Woodeye today. We're going to drag these people out of the funeral. We're going to terrorize them."
The evidence was so overwhelming, that the only issue outstanding was the actual amount of compensation due.
"So far, the counsel and I have agreed on an amount of damages. It's a total of $175,000 for the 18 claimants. That will be divided up based on the evidence that each claimant put forward. There were those who put forward evidence of abuse, as well as false imprisonment, because they were detained for 62 hours, and there were those who just gave evidence of false imprisonment. So, basically, those who gave evidence that they were brutalized, they will be receiving $12,000 each, and those who only provided evidence of false imprisonment will be receiving $5,000 each."
"A settlement is an admission of guilt, right?"
"There are risks in litigation, but to put it quite bluntly, we had no risks. There was no risk on our part. We had our airtight case that in fact, these people were brutalized, unprovoked. They did not do anything to call upon the GSU to have that attack visited upon them. They did not do anything at all. When I tell you that they were just mourning the loss of their loved one, and to have that attack visited upon them, it's an airtight case. If you have the medical report showing that these injuries resulted, and if you have the recording from the GSU, and the first-hand accounts from these individuals, there was no way that the Government could justify an attack like that. I have heard the head of the GSU go on the media and say that they have all rights to go here and go there. That is nonsense. You can't go to anybody's place of residence and brutalize them like that. Whether you think they committed crimes in the pass, or they are about to commit crimes in the future, you cannot do that. You just cannot do that."
Musa hopes that this sends a clear message police and to the citizens about what civilian rights are.
"What took place there was criminal. You don't hear any investigation taking place against the officers who committed this office, over 30 of them, but they were never investigated. They had on masks and they just did as they as they willed. So, that is very disturbing to me that we have all these institutions that people look, the police, the ombudsman, the DPP, that they rely on day in and day out. They cannot go to them for any comfort, and that to me is disturbing. Nobody is looking out for anybody anymore. Nobody is looking out for these people. So, what you have to do now is that you have to look out for yourself. You have to gather your own evidence. You have to be vigilant. You have to investigate your own actions, and take the matter to a civil court because there will be no criminal cases. You know, the police talk all this talk about how they're going to charge this one for murdering this young man or that young man, those all crumble. So, the message that is being sent from this case is that, you know what residents, you know what, citizens of this country? Take matters into your own hands, gather your own information, take the matter to a civil court, and that, I believe, is the only justice that is available to the people today."
According to Musa, the case goes back to court for a final report on next week Wednesday because the financial secretary has to sign off on the amount before it can be disbursed. 7News understands that the award will be paid in 2 parts, half this month, and half in January. Crown Counsel Herbert Panton represented the Government of Belize in this case.
Representatives of the George Street Gang or “Gaza” as they are called said they will only comment after next week when they get the official document from the Financial Secretary detailing the payments.