By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
AFTER years of having their security concerns marginalised, Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA) president Fred Smith yesterday said the recent ruling by the human rights arm of the Organisation of American States (OAS) has vindicated activists’ cries for anti-harassment laws.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) resolution, issued on November 4, calls on the government to immediately move to protect the lives and personal integrity of five members of Save the Bays (STB) and their nuclear families. It follows the group’s longstanding claims that its members have been subject to threats of harm, harassment and intimidation as a result of its advocacy and adversarial stance against the government and private developers on environmental issues.
Mr Smith said his organisation hopes the international scrutiny will positively impact the tenuous relationship between human rights and environmental defenders and the government in the Bahamas.
“Domestically, it is easy to target human rights defenders as destabilisers, or seditionists, or people that are undermining the good governance in the Bahamas,” Mr Smith said.
“We have been complaining about this harassment campaign for years now with absolutely no results from the government, the police, the Data Commissioner, the leaders of both political parties and other influential members of society.”
He said: “Back in February, 2015, we wrote to every religious leader, every senator, every MP, every Cabinet minister, and every leader of every civic organisation and said that a situation where hate speech and negative violent criticism is countenanced, and this is really just creating an environment in the Bahamas which breeds hate and violence.”
Last month, the GBHRA made a petition on behalf of Fred Smith, Francisco Nunez, Joseph Darville, Kirkland Bodie and Romauld Ferreira that asked the IACHR to request that the Bahamas government adopt precautionary measures to prevent irreparable harm to their lives.
The IACHR found that the five members of Save The Bays are in “a serious and urgent situation since their lives and personal integrity face an imminent risk of irreparable harm”. The precautionary measures require the Bahamas government to adopt the necessary measures to protect their lives and those of their families, to ensure the five men could pursue their work as human rights defenders without being subject to threats, harrassment or intimidation, to agree with the petitioners on the measures to be adopted and to report on investigative actions taken within a 20 day period.
The petition stems from longstanding allegations made by the GBHRA and STB concerning their public advocacy, and ongoing legal action in a number of environmental matters.
Mr Smith said: “This judgement by the OAS Human Rights Commission stands as an international indictment against the Bahamas government and also indicates the rights of human rights and environment defenders not to be abused. At the United Nations they stress that protecting these defenders is crucial to protecting the environment and human rights. The Bahamas is a signatory to the OAS declaration of rights and duties of man, and under that treaty the commission has directed that the government of the Bahamas to be accountable for our safety and welfare and wellbeing.
He said: “It is truly regrettable that it is only when Bahamians reach out to an international forum that notice is taken domestically of their complaints. What this is, is effectively an international injunction issued by OAS against the Bahamas government mandating that they keep us safe in our own country. If that’s not the most incredible situation I don’t know what is.
“We are very pleased that an international focus and spotlight has been put on these issues. They are not unique to the Bahamas; it is happening throughout Latin America and the Caribbean where developers work closely with politicians to avoid legal norms and constructs.”
STB called the IACHR decision was unprecedented, adding that the commission also found “that the smear campaigns, death threats, physical aggression and break-ins that STB members have faced constitute retaliation ‘due to their opposition to major urbanistic projects menacing the local environment, as well as relevant law suits challenging high ranking officials’.”
According to STB, the report highlighted the alleged plot to “kill” STB members using two individuals “who were allegedly hired by a well-known local developer and ‘campaign backer’ of the PLP.”
These claims were outlined in documents filed by members of STB in the Supreme Court earlier this year.
“It also referenced attacks against STB on www.bahamasuncensored.com and other attack websites connected to the governing party or the developer in question, such as ‘Deepthroat Bahamas,” the group said.
“The report also referenced the failure of local law enforcement to act over the past several years, despite repeated complaints from STB members concerning the acts of aggression and intimidation they have faced. It noted that STB members were of the view that recent approaches by police were only motivated by their application to the IACHR and that there exists a fear that any future police interviews would be used ‘as an opportunity to seek to force STB members to reveal their confidential sources’.”
In response, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration termed the rulling “regrettable”, and underscored that its review of the allegations revealed that claims “were not properly grounded in facts and were without evidentiary support or legal merit.”
“As far as investigations revealed and as far as investigations could be conducted by the Royal Bahamas Police Force in the face of refusal of co-operation by any of the Petitioners, investigations showed that there was no reason that special protection of any kind should be granted to any of the Petitioners.”
The Ministry statement furthered that the government was committed to providing a comprehensive response that will establish the “true nature” of STB and the individual petitioners.
“Police will continue to conduct investigations also involving post-September 2016 complaints when and if any of the Petitioners are willing and able to assist in the Police investigative process. While the Government is concerned that a mockery should not be made of the judicial system and the relief that it offers, the Government stands ready to protect the rights of all, citizens and others, in The Bahamas when in real fear of death,” the statement read.
Last night, the GBHRA called the ministry’s response “ominous and sinister”, and urged Prime Minister Perry Christie to “bring an end to the lunacy of Foreign Affairs under Minister Fred Mitchell.
The group insisted that the statement, which they attributed to Mr Mitchell, was insulting and a “slap in the face” to the IACHR.
“In their report,” the GBHRA statement read, “IACHR Commissioners pointed out that their reprimand over the plight of Save The Bays (STB) was not the first time they have had to warn this government about the sharp decline in the treatment of activists on its watch. They noted that their 2015 Report on the Criminalisation of the Work of Human Rights Defenders specifically noted that “human rights defenders in The Bahamas face a hostile environment that endangers their safety and work” – specifically calling out Mitchell and denouncing his earlier threat to imprison activists for disagreeing with his immigration policy.”
“The minister is playing a very dangerous game at the expense of each and every Bahamian citizen and resident. Though the PLP hopes it will gain the party some votes in the short term, in the long-run, this brand of demagogic rhetoric threatens our very way of life – the country’s two main industries being based almost entirely on our good standing in the international community.
It added: “No one wants to visit or invest their money in a despotic banana republic and we may be feeling the negative effects of Mitchell’s legacy for decades to come.”