It has been months now since the protest in the Village of Succotz, following the fatal traffic accident involving Assistant Commissioner of Police Miguel Segura. That accident claimed the life of Yolanda Valencia and left Yanie Cu bedridden.
Police had six months, according to the laws of Belize, to press charges against the group of protestors for the illegal gathering on August 19th; and on Thursday, four months after, they did.
Attorney for the defendants Michel Shebat gave details of the persecution.
Michel Chebat – Attorney for Alleged Rioters
“There was a total of 17 persons arraigned on the charges of rioting and unlawful assembly. The prosecution withdrew 2 against 2 of those persons, so there are only 14 persons who are now facing charges. There are 5 persons who were not served. So, the situation is that 14 persons have been charged with rioting and unlawful assembly today.
Actually they’re misdemeanours. So they’re really petty offences. They’re not serious offences at all.
I must tell you that it is disappointing to see that these people are being victimized. I mean, these are poor people who stood up for their rights, and they’re now being victimized, and that is a grave injustice being done.” .
Present during the court summons were a few known activists who stood in solidarity with the people. Among them was Geovanni Brackett, President of COLA and President of the Belize People’s Front Nancy Marin.
Mr Brackett told reporters outside the Magistrate’s Court that he is of the opinion that the prosecution of the people summoned to Court for the August 19th protest sends a clear warning to Belizean activists.
“I think that this action here by the Government using the Police Department to send a very loud message to all activists, that if you persists in any what they called unlawful gathering, that you will be dragged through the courts. This action is a demonic action against the people of Belize. It’s a restriction on your freedom of expression.
I think that we have to take what is happening here today as a very serious action by the Government to persecute these people. This is a very serious action that we should not take lightly. The Government of Belize is using their laws in the wrong way, to persecute innocent people.
Those folks had to be fighting for Officer Segura to be arrested. He is driving around today. Someone is dead. Someone is paralysed. And we our out here to be persecuting innocent people. You ask me, where is justice today?
“Our people will not shut up. This is an injustice to our people.
Where is Mr Vega today? He was accused of something more serious. Has he been arrested? Has he been brought in for questioning? Where is Mr Segura?
Like Geovanni said, they’re just very lucky that we’re a peaceful people. If we were not a peaceful people, somebody would have dropped out Mr Segura to be here today.
These are poor people that should be working. They’ve lost half a day of work, and they will lose some more, because they’ll be dragged to the courts, and dragged to the courts again, when the rich can commit even hideous crimes as we have witnessed, and there in their home.”
Assistant Commissioner of Police and Western Regional Commander Aaron Guzman told the media why the past actions of those who appeared in court are prosecutable.
“I believe the law says that if more than five persons gather together for a common purpose and riotous behaviour, and if you notice there was blockage of the highway and there was burning of tires. There was stoning of the equipment that was brought in, stoning of the Fire [Department], the Ministry of Works, and the Police, by and large the security forces.
The decision was made that to take photographs of those persons that were out there, acting unlawfully. As a result summons were prepared, and summons were served on these persons, and that is why they appeared in court today.
If it is that you partake in any civil disobedience out there, I would hope that people understand that when you partake in civil disobedience, you partake knowing fully well that you can be, or maybe arrested.”
But according to Geovanni Brackett, the decision to summon 17 people today for the Succotz protest affirmed his belief that the Compol’s decisions are politically based.
“I was told that it’s actually the Commissioner of Police that actually pushed for these people to be dragged here to court today.
I asked the Commissioner of Police, where was his discretion in the Penner matter? We have the passport in the country today. That is a very serious evidence in that matter, yet Penner is walking as a free man.
We have a Commissioner who has displayed very obviously to the public that he will use his discretion how he chooses to, and it seems political. I can’t deduce any other thing from his action.”
However despite this perception that the Belize Police Department, and by extension the Government of Belize, is persecuting a select few individuals to make an example out of them, ACP Guzman, told the media that police, contrary to public opinion, exercised an enormous amount of patience during the protest and are, up to this point, still showing the defendants some leniency.
ACP Aaron Guzman
“I was there for the entire duration, and I believe that myself, along with the other senior officers that were out there, exercised a tremendous amount of patience and tolerance, because you saw that the riot unit were there, and there was a time where they were coming on to engage, and I told them no, step back, because in this present day and age, you do not fight fire with fire.
So it is that in my opinion, and the other officers that were there, these people were gathered illegally. They were told that. As a person, as a community, there are certain rights that you can exercise, but there are certain guidelines that you must go by, and that is the position where the police department is at.
So, it wouldn’t have been sensible to engage those folks out there. there were children out there, six, seven years old. If there was an engagement with the Police riot unit and the crowd, the children would have suffered, because that’s the reality of dealing with riots.”
Out of the 20 people named in the notice of intended prosecution, 17 were summoned and 14 were arraigned. But footage of the protest shows that more people were involved, nevertheless, ACP Guzman says he doesn’t see any more persons being charged.
ACP Aaron Guzman
“Right now we think those are the persons that will be charged. I don’t, at this time, foresee anyone else being summoned.
We had certain things in place, and we if made some mistakes, in that we did not capture every person that were involved, then it so happens that we have to correct those mistakes. So that, in the future we try to capture everybody that gets involved in an incident of this nature.”
Each was granted $300 dollars bail plus surety. The defendants are to receive full disclosure from the prosecution by the 31st of December.
We understand that while the rioters set tires ablaze, blocked the roads and threw stones at authorities, the defendants will only be charged for taking part in an illegal gathering.
The case goes to trial on February 12th.