WE COMMEND the Bahamas government that after three months of shadow boxing, sending up smokes screens and pretending that all’s well in paradise, they have at last admitted that something sufficiently serious must have gone wrong at the Carmichael Detention Centre in June to warrant an investigation.
However, after all the denials, angry words, attempted cover-ups and bungled diplomacy, we think it is a grave misjudgment to hold this trial behind closed doors. No matter how many “independent observers” are brought in, the public is not going to believe any report sent out from such a hearing — especially as the critical witnesses were quickly shipped back to Cuba while Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell continued to maintain that “no one from the Bahamas government has admitted that there was any abuse of detainees by the Bahamas government”.
A plea that such a controversial trial must be held behind closed doors to protect national security, is a flimsy excuse. This is a simple case of brutality of persons being held in custody until a decision was made as to whether to send them back to Cuba, or accept an offer from Panama to give a large number of them asylum. Certainly national security should have no place in such a trial. However, probably fearing the exposure of how far Bahamians have been duped by contradictory statements made in these past three months by their own politicians, one could arguably justify a plea for political security — but national security – rubbish!
However, if government persists in this type of trial then we suggest — failing inviting the attendance of a representative for Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the US representative for Florida’s congressional district who has been outspoken in defence of the abused Cubans – that a member of the US Embassy in Nassau be present to represent this Florida constituency.
Of course, the local press should be allowed to report. As Mr Mitchell, a lawyer, knows — although Dr Nottage might not — when sensitive issues arise in a case, the judge can order the press not to report or even out of the room. And so the plea of protecting national security seems just another cover-up.
It is now time for this situation to remain in the portfolio of National Security Minister Nottage. The services of Foreign Affairs Minister Mitchell should no longer be needed. He should be allowed — with the blessing of PLP chairman Bradley Roberts — to wander off to chase another red herring. Mr Mitchell has now ordered an investigation into the possibility that Cuban immigrants are intentionally entering the Bahamas in an attempt to “destabilise our country”. Surely, he’s not suggesting a re-enactment of the Bay of Pigs? Or is this a sideshow to distract our attention from the pending trial?
After all, it was our roving ambassador who got us into this mess in the first place. As he painted himself into a corner, all Bahamians who refused to support his folly were dismissed as “traitors”.
Mr Mitchell argues that despite months of controversy, the Miami Democracy Group has not had an impact on the Bahamas’ economy. However, his fellow cabinet minister, Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe, disagrees. He says that the Cubans’ protest will harm the nation. One thing for certain is that the clumsy way that this unfortunate situation has been handled has not made Mr Wilchcombe’s job of attracting tourists to the Bahamas any easier.
Most of our readers must remember when American soldiers disgraced their country’s uniform by the brutal beatings and humiliation of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. Like the Bahamas, there were also shocking photographs of the abuse.
But, unlike Mr Mitchell, this is how US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld handled the situation: “These events,” he said, “occurred on my watch. As secretary of defence, I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility. It is my obligation to evaluate what happened, to make sure those who have committed wrongdoing are brought to justice, and to make changes as needed to see that it doesn’t happen again. I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in US custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn’t do that. That was wrong. To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of US armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation.”
All Mr Mitchell had to say was that the Bahamas government did not support any inhumane treatment in its Detention Centre. The matter would be immediately investigated and if found to be true those who transgressed would be punished — or words to that effect. Within days, the matter would have been dead.
Instead, Mr Mitchell dragged this country through months of denials, verbally abusing the Democracy Group who were only demanding justice, and shipping 24 of the detainees off to Cuba, while officials representing the Panama government said they had been trying for six days to get an appointment with Mr Mitchell to discuss Panama’s offer of asylum.
Anyway, we highly commend the Defence Force commander who ordered an immediate investigation, got signed statements from the abused Cubans, and at least one Defence Force officer, who admitted being ordered to beat the detainees. Although, he later recanted, his testimony is on the record, and so is the reason for his withdrawal. However, in submitting the case ready for trial, the investigator made special note that there was no provocation or resistance on the part of the abused men during the beatings. The case was ready for trial. If allowed to take the normal course of most trials, it would have been over by now.
But, our Minister of Foreign Affairs, instead of taking a page out of Donald Rumsfeld book, decided to be confrontational — and so the unhappy story drags on.