By Aaron Humes Freelance Reporter
On the heels of Wednesday’s presentation in the House of Representatives, the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) made a bid for changes to be made to the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act and the Firearms Act to reverse the current state of affairs.
In the wake of the Corporal Gino Peck and the Reynaldo Verde affairs – the former convicted, the latter released pending investigation – Belizeans have been calling on their representatives to take action.
Speaking at PUP headquarters, Independence Hall on Thursday, PUP Leader Francis Fonseca said the Party was revealing the depth of its work on the issue, conducted primarily by attorneys Anthony Sylvestre, the Party’s official legal advisor, and Kareem Musa, the party’s communications director in Belize City.
The matter was raised by Fonseca in the House on adjournment, and National Security Minister John Saldivar responded by first reminding that the laws were born out of a sort of compulsion to take measures against “a major surge in gang violence and gang and gun related crime.”
He conceded that with a “reprieve” in the crime situation, now would be a good time to take another look. Murders in particular are down from an all-time high of 145 in 2012 to 99 in 2013.
Saldivar promised that the matter of revision would be looked at “carefully,” and said that on Tuesday he had met with the Director of Public Prosecutions Vidal and the Solicitor General to begin such a review.
According to Saldivar, any proposed revisions will not restrict or reduce the ability to the police to deal with criminal. “But certainly with respect to the wide net that has been cast by these laws, we would like to make sure that ordinary law -abiding citizens are not caught by the wide net of these laws.”
He said that amendments to the Crime Control Act with regard to bail and especially special extenuating circumstances are on the table, as well as how to “narrow the net of persons that the police would be able to hold accountable for these firearms and ammunitions when they are found in these premises.”
Fonseca also proposed in the House that Section 60 of the Act which deems various classes of persons automatically in possession must be repealed “because it infringes a citizen’s constitutional right not to be deprived of his own liberty upon reasonable suspicion of having committed or being about to commit a criminal offense as well as the right to be presumed innocent under the law.”
Fonseca also called for the ceiling on certain types of gun-related crimes to be reduced.
In the House, Musa questioned the necessity of classifying all gun-related offences under the Firearms Act as not subject to bail. Most of them, in his view, were “not serious and not relevant.”
A draft Bill circulated at the PUP’s press conference on Thursday proposes to amend the Crime Control Act, Chapter 102 of the Laws of Belize, by removing subsection 2 (i) of Section 16 which lists offences for which one shall not be granted bail, and replacing it by referring to Section 3 (i) of the Firearms Act and adding a provision that persons charged under subsections (b), (d) and (i) of the Section – that is, for robbery and aggravated assault with a firearm and keeping unlicensed firearm and ammunition – be allowed to present to the court a written notice of special extenuating circumstances for consideration of bail.
Musa also took Saldivar to task for suggesting that the drop in crime in 2013 was a result of the work of the Act, arguing that firearm-related crimes have risen steadily since the act was implemented, as have what he called “extra-judicial” killings and other circumstances.
He also pointed out that while the PUP has been meeting with activists on the ground like Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) who are challenging the gun law, the Party does not want to steal their thunder.
Sylvestre targeted the penalties prescribed by the amended Firearms Act which remove jurisdiction from the Magistrate or Judge, citing a recent Caribbean Court of Justice decision that rendered similar sentences unconstitutional.
The current Act mandates minimum prison time of five years, maximum ten. The proposed change is to Section 32, substituting the phrase “is liable” to indicate the magistrate’s discretion, and setting maximum terms at five years for a first offence and seven for second and subsequent offices. This, Sylvestre told Reporter, would cure the “draconian and unconstitutional” aspect of the law.
Fonseca said the PUP intends to submit its proposals for the relevant authorities including the Ministry of National Security and the DPP’s office. He told us that personal responsibility remains necessary and that the Police Department should consider incorporating a formal education program on the use and responsibilities of firearms. Sylvestre added that there is no substitute for proper laws.
And what of Section 54 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Procedure) Act, used in the fairytale ending of Corporal Gino Peck’s case last week? Fonseca said this too needs to be looked at and agrees with Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryl-Lynn Vidal that it is not clear if the section is in fact applicable, though Chief Magistrate Ann-Marie Smith assumed that it was.
Those already affected by the law may have recourse to the courts, said Musa, and Sylvestre added that he has four cases in the pipeline for appeal which argue the unconstitutionality of the Acts.
If a deal can be reached, it would circumvent a proposed constitutional motion to be filed by a team of Senior Counsels led by Simeon Sampson, Peck’s attorney.
According to Prime Minister Dean Barrow, work also has to be done by authorities to rehabilitate the image of the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU), of whom he said that there is a “perception” in the wider public that they are “separate and apart, an entity unto themselves.”