By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
IMMIGRATION activists are calling a recent Supreme Court ruling a game-changer in their fight to destroy the status quo concerning how immigration polices are executed in The Bahamas.
The ruling emphasises the limits of the government's ability to detain those suspected of being in the country illegally for more than 48 hours.
It also appears to mandate that the government cannot deport people without first taking them before the courts, a point that contravenes years of established practice in The Bahamas.
In October, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Isaacs ordered the immediate release of Jamaican national Matthew Sewell, 27, from the Carmichael Road Detention Centre after he spent nine years shuffling between the detention centre and the former Her Majesty's Prison, Fox Hill.
In his written ruling on the matter released recently, Justice Isaacs said the law requires that people detained by an immigration officer be charged within 48 hours.
To extend this detention, a police officer of at least the rank of inspector must apply to a Magistrate for a period "not extending 72 hours where enquiries into an offense are ongoing," he said.
Given this, in the Sewell case, Justice Isaacs ruled that the appropriate grounds for continued detention were not met.
Representatives of the government had argued that Mr Sewell had "no legal status in The Bahamas," and that this was a basis for his detention.
However, Justice Isaacs noted that no deportation order nor recommendation for deportation was made with respect to Mr Sewell under this provision of the law.
Even so, he said: "Only a Court can determine whether a person's presence in The Bahamas is contrary to the provision of the Act. As Longley J. (as he then was) said … "Detention or arrest with a view to deportation without being taken before a court is not permissible."
In terms of how long a detained person could be held when under a deportation order, Justice Isaacs noted that the time frame must be fixed.
In a statement on Thursday, the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA) called the ruling a game changer, saying it vindicates their reasoning.
“The GBHRA could not be more pleased with the judge’s written ruling," the group said.
"It upholds the fundamental tenet which we have been arguing in defence of for years - that due process and the rule of law must be available to everyone in The Bahamas, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality or background."
“The judge has affirmed that immigrants in this country, regardless of whether they are suspected of breaching the Immigration Act, have the same fundamental rights and you and I and that the government cannot take these away from anyone upon a whim.
“Sadly, there have been other judgements to the same effect over the years, but the government has simply ignored them and continued with illegal indefinite detentions of immigrants in violation of the Bahamas Constitution.
“This time, we expect to be different. This time, we expect the government to adhere to the law and give each and every person suspected of breaking the law, including the Immigration Act, the due process they are entitled to.
"This means being taken before a judge no more than 48 hours after being detained, the right to a lawyer, the right to apply for bail and the presumption of innocence.
“This time, the world is watching us. The government’s unlawful and harsh immigration policy has drawn international headlines and caused human rights defenders around the globe to pay careful attention to our actions. The government simply must respect the Senior Justice Isaacs’ ruling in this case and use it as a guideline for all others of its kind. This time, our reputation is on the line.”