Extradition Proceedings Begin For Bennett, In A First, He Gets Bail
Since we broke the story of the US Extradition request for attorney Andrew Bennett, we've been closely following the developments on this unprecedented case.
Bennett becomes the first attorney that the US government has requested to face extradition proceedings. The Americans want him to stand trial in the District of Puerto Rico for 7 counts of money laundering, and today, after weeks of preparation by the state, the formal process actually started.
As we told you, the next step was for Chief Magistrate Sharon Frazer to issue a provisional warrant for his apprehension, and then a first hearing - which is very much like your standard arraignment. It happened at court this morning, and our 7News team was there.
Daniel Ortiz reports:
Andrew Bennett walking out
"Mr. Bennett do you have any comments?"
Andrew Bennett - Facing Extradition
"Do you still deny the allegations?"
That single response was the only comment Attorney Andrew Bennett made today after meeting his bail of $100,000.
With today's first hearing, the extradition proceedings formally begins, and will not end until his discharged, or if it is decided that he should stand trial in the US a for money laundering.
Solicitor General Nigel Hawk and Bennett's attorney, Anthony Sylvestre, were very brief with their public comments after the hearing and kept the talking points directed the issue of bail.
Apart from being the first attorney being sought for extradition, as far as we know, he's the only defendant who managed to get bail
"How would you describe today's first hearing? Is it like an arraignment?"
Anthony Sylvestre - Attorney for Andrew Bennett
"Yes, it is an arraignment, and so, we stressed that point, just as in arraignments, because the matters are to be conducted similarly, as if somebody were charged with an indictable offense in Belize. And so, the person would appear, and consideration to bail. And, again, 1 if it is a bailable offense - if it were for instance an offense such as murder or treason, then, that automatically would not been within the purview of the Chief Magistrate to even consider bail. So, it is a bailable offense, so for instance, we would have contrasted, say in the past, you have persons being charged with money laundering. They appeared before the court, and it is a bailable offense, once you can show that person will turn to the court, and that they can and will be able to adhere to the conditions, which the court set out, then bail is usually granted."
Nigel Hawke - Solicitor General
"We issued our formal objection because of our treaty obligations in respect of bail. You heard the submissions from the other side, in respect of bail. The court agreed with their submissions with respect to mail. She has jurisdiction to deal with the issue of bail, and bail was granted. So, at this point, the proceedings are deemed to be opened. So, there is not much that we can say until we really get to the beginning of things."
"We made the point that yes, while there may have been the cases that maybe persons who have been arraigned on extradition weren't granted bail, but there are circumstances that distinguish or take this defendant's case, Mr. Bennett's case, from theirs, such as, for instance where a person would have committed an offense in the United States and fled to this jurisdiction, then clearly, those would be compelling reasons why a person would not have been granted bail."
Since the story broke, Bennett maintained his innocence of all the charges which the US Government. Now keep in mind that they say that they have evidence, including a surveillance of Bennett back when the offenses were supposedly committed.
Sylvestre told us that his client has the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence, which is why he stressed that point to convince Chief Magistrate Sharon Frazer to grant him bail.
"Is your client maintaining his innocence against all allegations and charges?"
"Of course, I don't know if you were in court, but that was one of the points we made as well, that there is this presumption of innocence."
But, over the course of the next following months, the court inspect the extradition file, Chief Magistrate Frazer will determine if there is justifiable reasons for her to order his extradition.
"Once the documents are laid before the court, we are going to have to be ready to have those documents ready for disclosure, and the position is yes."
After being brought before Chief Magistrate Frazer, Bennett's attorney, Anthony Sylvestre argued very extensively why he should be eligible for bail. He made the point that from as early as December 28, Bennett was made aware of the extradition request for him. His attorney says he has cooperated with the extradition proceedings, and he even voluntarily handed himself in after learning that the provisional warrant for his apprehension was already approved. Sylvestre also stressed that under the constitution, Bennett is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that remanding him without due cause would be disenfranchising Bennett, since remand could end up becoming a type of punishment.
Responding, Solicitor General Nigel Hawke reiterated that the state was objecting on the grounds that Belize cannot breach the extradition treaty obligations to the US Government. At the end, he deferred to her judgment on the issue of bail.
After consideration, Chief Magistrate Frazer explained that the elements in his case were very weighty, but that she does not think that, as an officer of the court, he would violate his obligation to attend all adjournments of the extradition proceedings, until they are completed.
She then granted him bail of $100,000, and he is to surrender all his travel documents. He cannot leave the country, except with the express approval of the court itself. Additionally, he must report to the Queen Street Police Station every Monday and Friday until his case is concluded.
The case has been adjourned until February 2.