GOVERNMENT IS making a big mistake by sanctioning a closed door hearing of the five marines in the Cuban detainees beating case.
No matter how many observers they allow inside and no matter how many times MPs promise a full report, the word of none of them means anything to the majority of Bahamians anymore.
The right hand does not seem to know what the left hand is doing. One minister contradicts another too often to give the public confidence that any of them know what they are doing.
At times, one wonders whether they sit around the same cabinet table and discuss the same subjects.
All we know is that — whether they realise it or not — they are collectively writing their government’s funeral march.
Not only is it unfair to the Cuban refugees to have a hearing behind closed doors, but it is also unfair to the five accused marines, who, if they are exonerated, will never have a public that will accept the verdict.
When the beatings first made the headlines, statements had already been taken from both the Cubans and the marines. It was noted that the prosecution was ready for trial. A Tribune reporter was given the impression at the time that on the prosecution’s side at least, there was no objection to the press being present.
Soon afterwards, however, it was stated by the government that the hearings would be closed for security reasons. How in heaven’s name could security be involved in this particular case? Either there was a beating or there wasn’t a beating. Either the beating was justified or it wasn’t justified. Either the Cubans brought it on themselves by rebellious behaviour, or the marines had a score to settle. Were the Cuban detainees ever a threat to the marines while in their custody? No matter which way we looked at this case, and read the documents in our possession, could we see any state secrets being divulged that would compromise this country’s security.
The Defence Force was then quoted as saying that reporters would not be allowed to cover the hearings “due to the sensitive nature of the case”. It will certainly be more than sensitive if witnesses cannot be produced.
Eventually, National Security Minister Dr Bernard Nottage announced that the hearings would be “held in camera”, three independent observers would be allowed to attend, and a “full report” would be issued at the conclusion. In camera hearings means that both press and public are barred.
Lawyer Wayne Munroe objected, as did the Opposition FNM. He said the press should be incensed and fight against the ruling. The Tribune is incensed — mightily incensed — but we recognise that the government has locked jaws on this matter, and the fight would be a waste of everybody’s time. We have completely lost confidence in the system. We predict that the fall-out from a closed-door hearing could have troubling consequences.
We encourage Mr Munroe to take the matter to the Supreme Court and request a judicial review. We assure him that he will be well covered by The Tribune.
On the floor of the House of Assembly, Opposition Deputy Leader Loretta Butler-Turner defended the public’s right to know.
The press is a part of the democratic process,” she said. “It’s only fitting that the press be allowed. But with them being denied, are we the public being denied the right to know what is happening? I think there has been enough hiding and denial. Let the chips fall where they may and don’t deny the press access.
“The mere fact that they are using defence attorneys makes it a trial for public record and the records must reflect this. The press should seek legal action. We should be absolutely outraged that it is being done without being open to the public, at least to the press who could lend a fair and balanced analysis of what’s happening. If this was a military trial and confined to the disciplinary bodies in the military, then I could understand, but they have persons who are observing, they have defence attorneys and others we may or may not know so this should be open to the public.”
It would be interesting to know how the case will proceed without the alleged victims being present. Where are those who were beaten – beaten so badly that three had to be admitted to hospital, one with broken ribs?
We understand they were hurriedly deported to Cuba during the height of the allegations — in other words the evidence was quickly swept away. How will the judicial panel deal with this matter if most, if not all of the witnesses are not present? How can the case ever be treated as a fair trial without victims and witnesses? How will the three independent eyewitness to the proceedings explain this to the public?
The presence of the Press certainly will not prejudice the case. It can only lend validity to the proceedings, especially if government surprises everyone by negotiating a return of the victims from Cuba, if only for fair hearings. And what about the Cuban woman who claims she was impregnated while in custody? Her case should be easy to prove once the baby is born and its DNA taken. If there is a match, there is guilt. Today there is even a non-invasive method that can determine paternity at eight weeks into the pregnancy. This can be done by the mother’s blood sample and the putative father’s saliva. So even this can be obtained for the hearing.
Is government afraid that the press will confirm what the public already knows? Better that the whole truth be known rather than gossip – gossip that will grow with the telling – be set loose on the community.
We recommend that government think again, because this case is not going to evaporate into thin air. If not handled properly it will live a long time to haunt all who are involved.