Prime Minister announces takeover of registries

Earlier this week, the Government announced that it had re-taken the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize (IMMARBE) and International Business Companies Registry upon the expiration of an extended contract with Belize International Services Limited (BISL), a joint partnership between Panamanian law firm Morgan and Morgan and BCB (formerly Belize) Holdings, a company held by interests allied to Lord Michael Ashcroft. BISL had been running the registries since 1990 and on the eve of the 1993 elections signed a contract to continue doing so for a further ten years with an option to extend for an even further ten years. But according to Prime Minister Dean Barrow, his administration was shocked to find out that in fact BISL had paid the former Said Musa administration $1.5 million to continue the contract beyond June of this year for a further seven years to 2020 – and it was all done in secret.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow:
vlcsnap-2013-06-12-19h14m01s26Now, understand what is happening. They had already operated for three years, then they got the agreement, which gave them ten. When they started operating for the second tenure under that agreement, by the way of the exercise with the option to renew, Ghandi said “You can’t, it’s not valid.” The Prime Minister and Fonseca obviously said “Ignore Ghandi” and then two years later signed this secret document, saying to BISL – “Not only is the exercise with the option to renew valid, we are going to give you, when that option we are treating as valid finally expires in June of 2013, an additionally seven years” – which would make altogether for a grand total of something like thirty years that these people would get to control the two registries. Of course, no one was aware of the existence of that agreement – in quotation marks – of 24th March 2005, that Musa and Francis Fonseca signed.

Government corresponded with BISL on the matter but both sides held firm. Government counsel Gian Ghandi had apparently argued against continuing the contract in 2003 at the expiration of the first agreement signed in 1993. He has since put on record his reasons for doing so at that time but was apparently overruled by then Prime Minister Said Musa and Attorney General Francis Fonseca. That’s because both Musa and Fonseca countersigned a letter from BISL representative Philip Osborne insisting on the validity of the “amended” agreement in 2005. On Monday, the Government decided to take over the registries.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow:
As a result of that advice, we wrote to BISL in a letter dated 4th June 2013, rejecting this secret document of 24th March 2005 and reiterated our position that the agreement expire- which is now – expired on the 10th of June 2013, which as I recollected was Monday. I want to take you to some of the details of the letter that Ghandi wrote in 2003, saying that from then, the exercise of the option for the second tenure was invalid. I also want to make the point that the reasons he gave them for the invalidity are as valid now as they were then.

The Prime Minister has also cited international pressure from the European Union, which is assisting with the revised Fisheries Act and recently blacklisted Belize for condoning illegal fisheries. IMMARBE’s troubles with ships flying the Belize flag while conducting various illegal activities is well-known, and there are many concessions given to BISL that the Government cannot sustain. But what is most important to the Prime Minister is giving Belize’s stained international reputation a chance to heal.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow:
We want to signal immediately that because apart from in our view, the illegality of the extension that Musa and Fonseca purported to give, we are obliged to move, in particular because of our obligation to protect the larger Belizean national interest. When that EU Commission decision came out, a number especially of the actors in the Aquaculture industry, made representation to Government and asked us what we intended to do, because their shrimp exports in particular, were in jeopardy of being banned by the EU.

Prime Minister Barrow claimed that in their search they could not find any copy of the extended agreement even though the money was forwarded to the Government. Later a reporter claimed to have a document signed by Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary, authorizing receipt of the payment, but the P.M. said they are more concerned with fighting the “secret” extension of the agreement and “welcomed” threatened litigation by BISL who are claiming US$60 million in damages. The registries together make  about US$12 million per year, much of which was paid to BISL in administrative costs, but Government wants to use the money for salary increases for teachers and public officers. We asked whether Government intended to hold on to the registry and here was P.M. Barrow’s response.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow:
Oh yeah, I’m glad you asked that question, because I gather, those who will have to apologize for the action of their leaders are saying that in any event, we will take the registry and we will give it to some UDPs . That registry will remain with the Government of Belize – those registries.

Workers at the two registries would also be allowed to keep their jobs.

About the Author