By Marion Ali
The fate of 75 tons (150,000 pounds) of Guyanese rice, imported by businessman Jack Charles (Jitendra Chawla) remains unknown, following a court ruling on Monday by a Supreme Court judge, who rejected an application filed on Charles’ behalf, which sought judicial review of the decision to seize the rice.
Justice Sonya Young refused to entertain Charles on grounds that he was seeking the court’s indulgence over a product he imported without having an import permit, and upon this decision, the Customs Department wasted no time in seeking ipermission to seize the product.
Customs officials went before Senior Magistrate Sharon Fraser on Tuesday and got permission to dispose of the grain. But given the haste with which those officials moved, without first notifying Charles or his representatives, when Charles learned of the plan one of his attorneys, Michel Chebat, sought an injunction to stop the destruction. Chebat formally made that application in writing on Wednesday. Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin granted the injunction until Tuesday, January 12th, when he will preside over the hearing to determine if the Customs Department is justified in taking possession of the rice.
But while Charles and his company, RC Imports, purchased the Grade A rice to make a profit, selling at 69 cents per pound – cheaper than the locally produced rice, his storage costs for the product at the Big Creek port has been accruing daily, and now stands well in the thousands of dollars. The rice has been there since its arrival on December 17th.
The Customs Department denied Charles access to remove the product because he could not produce an import permit from the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA). BAHA then confiscated the shipment upon its arrival, on grounds that Charles did not follow the proper procedure in securing the importation permit.
But Charles, who claims he applied for the permit from last July, has not received it, nor has he received a reason why it has not been granted. He went ahead and imported the rice and the legal war over what will happen with the staple food ensued.
The first application, denied by Justice Young, was filed by Leeroy Banner, Charles’ other attorney, last week. The application was to ask the court to force BAHA to either release the rice or explain why it has not granted Charles the permit.
The court proceeding, which took place in private chambers, involved a slew of attorneys, including those representing Charles and RC Imports, the government, and rice producers from three Mennonite communities.
Banner opined thereafter that it is a decision they can appeal, despite Justice Young’s point that the law is so clear that she did not think an appeal would make much sense.
Attorney for the Belize Agro-productive Sector Group, Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, summed up Charles’ position as using the court to assist him in breaking the law.
“Essentially what the government argued, quite rightly in their submissions, was that basically the issue that is before the court is an importer who says: ‘I need a license, I applied for it and didn’t get it, I don’t care, I’m bringing in my goods notwithstanding the fact that I have not obtained the necessary permit. Then he comes to court and says I don’t have the permit and I want the court to order the importation of a product that requires a license’.”
But permit aside, there is another issue that arose since the importation of the rice. Courtenay pointed to another scenario involving Guyanese rice that was found to be contaminated. “There was put before the court an article from 2014, where rice was exported from Guyana to Chile, where the rice was found to be contaminated and it was returned. We are not advocating that Belize should bear that risk. That rice has not been tested by Belizean authorities. It should leave Belize; the quicker the better…We do not want rice that has not been subject to a test to be brought into Belize. It constitutes a risk not only to the agricultural sector, but also to food security and safety because it would not have been tested.”
Courtenay also suggested that while Charles was proposing to sell the rice at 69 cents per pound, there is nothing to prohibit him from hiking the price in future shipments.