by Sir Arthur Foulkes
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
That exchange is from the celebrated play, A Man For All Seasons, by Robert Bolt, which was first staged in Britain in 1960 and several years later made into a movie. It is, of course, about Sir Thomas More, the brilliant scholar, lawyer and statesman who was Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII.
Sir Thomas was a deeply religious man and he believed in certain principles, including the rule of law. When he refused to bend to the will of the king in what were to him matters of principle and conviction, he was sent to the Tower of London, put on trial for treason and beheaded in July 1535. Four hundred years later he was canonized by the Catholic Church.
* * *
On December 18, 2006, five employees of Nassau Flight Services were arrested when they landed in Fort Lauderdale on a Spirit Airline flight from Nassau. They were part of a group of 20 employees picked for a mandatory training course in Fort Lauderdale.
The five were arrested on board the plane and charged with trafficking drugs to the United States through Lynden Pindling International Airport. It was reported to be the culmination a year-long undercover operation conducted jointly by Bahamian and American officers. The circumstances clearly indicate that the five were tricked into going to the US so they could be picked by US law enforcement officers and put on trial in that country.
Nobody objects one little bit to undercover operations being conducted against suspected criminal activity. In fact, citizens take it for granted that such operations are ongoing in order to protect the public and bring criminals to justice.
But citizens have a right and a duty to ask questions when it appears that Bahamian authorities may have colluded with agents of another country to bypass the sovereignty and due processes of the laws of The Bahamas in order to render Bahamian suspects to another jurisdiction.
That, of course, is exactly what did happen. Many Bahamians were alarmed at what they heard and very rightly started to ask questions of their government.
They wanted to know if the Government of The Bahamas or any of its agencies or agents knew about and approved of what appeared to be the extrajudicial rendition of Bahamian citizens to another country. They wanted to know why, after many months of investigation, the Bahamian suspects were not arrested and charged in Bahamian courts.
After all, if the alleged offences were committed in The Bahamas, then the evidence, or much of it, must have been gathered in The Bahamas. That was borne out by the fact that several others who are alleged to have been part of a drug-smuggling operation at the airport were subsequently arrested and charged in The Bahamas.
The citizens who dared to ask questions about all this were immediately set upon and accused of all sorts of things: they were in sympathy with criminals, they were more concerned about drug traffickers than security, and they did not care that this could endanger pre-clearance facilities at the airport.
This is a classic case of the proverbial red herring. It is all absolutely wrong, grossly unfair to law-abiding citizens and utterly irrelevant to the questions at hand.
As usual, the PLP Government’s response to public agitation over this matter has been quite inadequate. Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell assured the public that Minister of Transport and Aviation Glenys Hanna had no prior knowledge of the operation.
He did not say if any other minister had.
Attorney General Allyson Maynard Gibson has had more to say about this affair than any other member of the Cabinet and she has denied that “the Government” was in any way complicit in what appears to be an extrajudicial rendition of Bahamians to another jurisdiction.
But Mrs. Gibson also did not say if any other minister of the Government had prior knowledge.
After nearly three weeks Prime Minister Perry Christie, always slow to recognize a matter of serious national concern, announced that he had launched an inquiry and promised that he will share his findings with the Bahamian people. He said he will speak comprehensively and in detail.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Security Cynthia Pratt has had little or nothing to say about it publicly.
There are a few in our community who out of willful ignorance or for other motives appear not to understand the issues involved or want to confuse them. They say that a drug smuggling operation at the airport endangers our pre-clearance privileges and our security.
Of course it does, and every Bahamian is aware of that. But that does not explain why, after many months of surveillance and gathering evidence, all the suspects were not arrested at the earliest propitious moment, removed from the airport and charged before our courts.
Bahamians are indeed concerned about the economic implications of security breaches at our airport and the danger drug trafficking poses to both The Bahamas and the US. We are also just as concerned as the Americans about our own personal safety when travelling and we expect those responsible to leave no stone unturned to ensure our safety.
But no one has explained how the rendition of Bahamian suspects to another jurisdiction makes us any safer.
Another argument is that our courts are overburdened, inefficient and in some cases too lenient, that extradition takes too long, so it is to our advantage to render suspects to the US for trial, or even invite the Americans to come into our country and clean things up for us!
It may be true that there is a lot wrong with law enforcement and judicial processes in The Bahamas, but it is our responsibility to fix what is wrong. It is our responsibility to give our law enforcement agencies the resources and support they need. It is our responsibility to make sure our courts are adequately resourced and populated.
It would be utterly irresponsible for us to abdicate these constitutional, legal and moral responsibilities to another country, however friendly.
The Americans do have tremendous resources and they believe in the rule of law. But Bahamians see it as a big problem when suspects are put on trial and convicted in the US media, and are understandably alarmed when an American official attempts to do the same in The Bahamas.
The Americans also have problems with law enforcement and judicial processes. It is not an unknown phenomenon in America that people who should be behind bars are let out by the system to murder and rape again. There was a case just recently in Indiana where a child-murderer on parole killed a 16-year-old girl.
Dozens of Americans convicted of serious crimes, including murder, have subsequently been proven innocent by new evidence including DNA. Under the present US administration, respect for the rule of law is not held in the highest regard at home or abroad.
Furthermore, assurances about due process in the US will likely fall on deaf ears if due process in The Bahamas is not respected by our American friends. Due process can sometimes take long in The Bahamas but cases can go on for many years in the US as well.
It is to our shame, unfortunately, that too many Bahamians see nothing wrong with drug trafficking or benefiting from this nefarious trade, but it is wrong to extrapolate from this that all Bahamians are corrupt. The vast majority of us are law-abiding and anxious to see those who threaten our reputation, peace and security put behind bars.
But we will not be persuaded to cut a great road through the law because then we will be exposed to lawlessness and the loss of rights we have cherished for many generations, even during the colonial era.