The main witness in today’s Senate Select Hearing was Honorable Elvin Penner. It’s his second time at the hearings and as last time, he began by making a statement. Last week he said he would not answer any questions on Wong Hong Kim in order to avoid incriminating himself in any possible pending criminal cases. Today, he went a step further to say that he has a right not to speak at all if he so chooses.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: First of all with regards to the responses during last week session where I exercised my right to remain silent on a case basis with regards to certain questions, this right is in addition to whether I am not exposed to further penalties, section 14 1, of the very law governing these proceedings. The legislative assembly powers and privileges states that I have the same rights as privilege as before a court of law. Everyone is aware of the inherent right of any accused, even in cases of accused murders, to remain silent throughout an entire trail if he wishes and they cannot be penalized for that. In fact the judge, chair in this case must be fair and reiterate to the deciders of the fact that such silent is my right and I ask that you state so prior to the commencement of today’s proceedings as the chair of this tribunal; fairly, to do so also has consequences. This is despite the fact that you may be able to find select sections that purport to access a penalty that pre-constitution 1962 ordinance cannot override the 1981 constitution. Section 134 of the constitution states that prior existing laws shall now be construed with the modifications, adaptations, qualifications, and exceptions to bring it into conformity with the constitution. Therefore, in addition to my right not to self incriminate myself, I feel that I do have the right remain silent for no reason at all, as opposed to the last occasion where we debated about the possible exposures or not to further penalties.
Aldo Salazar, Chair: On the last occasion you said that because you have been exposed to prior matters.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: That is still the case, but..
Aldo Salazar, Chair: Let me finish. On the last occasion you said because of the exposure to previous matters, you would not answer questions related to those matters, which I could not understand with legal principle behind that. So you’re changing that now and you’re saying that the constitution affords you the right to not say anything?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: I am indeed indicating that the constitution does afford me to not say anything.
Aldo Salazar, Chair: Where in the constitution affords you that right?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: I don’t have a copy of that section of the constitution with me. I don’t recall exactly what the constitution read but that is my understanding and that is why I’m stating that today.
One of the questions that was posed to Penner last week was in regards to a list that was requested by Cabinet while Penner was Minister of State in the Immigration Ministry. Penner told the Senate that indeed Cabinet had requested a list of all those who got visas and who recommended them. Today, Pener says he wants those records of that information withdrawn from the minutes of the hearings from last week since he should not have had to say anything about that list because Cabinet matters are confidential.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Matters pertaining to cabinet are purely confidential so that is the reason why I have sent that letter to you to consider my request. I’m humbly making that request like I said, and you stated that it’s completely up to the committee too decide to either adhere or not to adhere to my request. I have also been further advised that if with the understanding together with my attorney, I feel that there is indeed laws providing for this committee to adhere to my request; that if the request is not honoured, it is also my right to seek redress by way of a competent court of law. Just saying that, at that time of refusal if you do refuse it, together with the assistance of a legal advice, that step could be there that could be taken.
He then further accused Senator Courtenay of pressing the issue, though he knew better.
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: I can certainly understand why perhaps senators Lizzaragua and Smith would have still asked these questions given the fact that law is not their means of their daily sustenance but the same however, I could not say for senator Courtenay who from holding a degree in law, is a senior council and formed a member of a past cabinet. I am with the view that he understands, or understood at the time that cabinet matters are confidential, and I have my strong belief why he knows that is because of his immediate response when I brought up the matter of cabinet confidentiality, his response and I quote is, “I anticipated that.” which convinces me that he was not ignorant of the fact that cabinet papers are indeed confidential matters. Hence it is my opinion, even though senator Courtenay was fully aware of the questions in regards to cabinet discussions were perhaps not legally permissible in this setting; he nevertheless proceeded to pose them. One can therefore only speculate as to the true motives in giving this particular line of questioning. This therefore begs the questions, was the senators attempt on casting aspersions on the current administration instead of actually fulfilling the terms of reference of this committee. It is my further opinion that senator Courtenay has clearly proven to me and to the vast majority of the listening public that this hearing has become a platform for him, a political platform, not only to undermine and discredit past and present ministers of the UDP administration but also to do likewise to career public officers. I believe that he is also making every effort to represent his party in this senate to the best of his ability.
Sen. Eamon Courtenay, Opposition Senator: Let me just say something to you. For the record, nothing that you said just now frightens me or will change the questions I have for you alright? You know why I am here, you know why you are here. As long as we keep that in mind, we won’t be here for too long but believe me I will ask you the questions that I have, because you were the one who was volunteering all along that you wanted to come here and tell this senate committee all that you know about the scandal of the immigration department. All of a sudden, for some reason, you are now coming up with reasons why you do not wish to answer questions.
True to his word, Penner didn’t give up any information today. Here is how some of the discussion went as the Senators tried to get some answers on the Wong Hong Kim case.
Sen. Eamon Courtenay, Opposition Senator: The evidence before this committee is that you took, or you went along with, whichever way it is, an Asian gentleman in a black suit to the immigration department. Do you recall in September 2013 going to the immigration department with an Asian gentleman in a black suit?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: Well at this point in time I will invoke my right under the laws of Belize to remain silent.
Sen. Eamon Courtenay, Opposition Senator: Mister Penner do you know Omar Phillips?
Sen. Eamon Courtenay, Opposition Senator: You do not recall that he worked at the immigration department when you were Minister of State?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: No I do not recall.
Sen. Eamon Courtenay, Opposition Senator: Do you recall ever having contact with him at the immigration department work wise?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: No I do not recall.
Sen. Eamon Courtenay, Opposition Senator: Well Mister Phillips was an Immigration officer in September 2013. And he has testified before this committee that you came along with a Asian gentleman wearing a black suit in September 2013. Is that testimony of Mister Phillips true or false?
Elvin Penner, Former Minister of Immigration: That is his testimony so I would not be able to say whether it is true or false because that is the testimony that he had made.
Sen. Eamon Courtenay, Opposition Senator: Well did you go in September 2013 with an Asian gentleman wearing a black suit to the immigration department?