By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
FORMER Deputy Prime Minister Brent Symonette said yesterday that the government’s public pronouncements on the controversial Interception of Communications Bill, 2017, “doesn’t hold water” when put up against arguments that the law, if enacted, would impede upon the civil liberties of citizens.
The former attorney general, during an interview with The Tribune on Tuesday, said it was “virtually impossible” for any right thinking citizen to perceive the bill as an impediment to crime, saying instead that the bill’s timing lends more to political expediency.
Mr Symonette, who was made attorney general after a mid-term Cabinet shuffle by the Ingraham administration in 1995, said the timing of the legislation’s introduction in the House of Assembly should be viewed as “suspicious” because it coincides with the passage of a “watered-down” Freedom of Information Act and the start of one of the country’s most intriguing political seasons in recent history.
The former St Anne’s MP also said the kinds of crimes that are considered “prevalent” throughout the country can be addressed through means already employed by the state and enhancements to laws already enacted.
Mr Symonette also accused Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson of relying on “smoke and mirror” tactics to mislead the public over something that was “too clear to see,” insisting that the Christie administration was rushing the legislation to give the perception that it has done something during its term to resolve crime.
“No drug dealer or murderer is going to lay out their crimes via an email or letter, not in this day and time,” Mr Symonette told The Tribune. “This situation stinks of something bad. There is no way a drug dealer is going to say they’re making a drop at block three, lot three in Englerston via an email or letter.
“Now money laundering and blue-collar crimes, maybe; but not the style of crime prevalent in our country now. If they wanted to get information on persons, whether adversaries or not, this would be the way to go about it.
“Criminals use cell phones and we have long had a law to guard against that,” he said, referring to the Listening Devices Act, which the new bill seeks to repeal.
“This does not add up. When I was attorney general, I signed countless applications submitted by the commissioner of police to have phone lines tapped. That law was in place since 1972; now all of a sudden you want to come to me and sell me on the idea we need to get into emails and letters too. Not buying it. Not at this time, the explanations being provided are not good enough,” stated Mr Symonette.
“The way it looks, it seems as if the government wants to get into Brent Symonette’s, Joe Public’s, anyone they can build a reasonable case against, their emails and letters. It comes across as the government wanting to get into the inner workings of those that can go against them.”
The bill, which was tabled in the House on the night of February 8, will provide for the “interception of all communications networks regardless of whether they are licensed as public or not.”
The bill says this will include telecommunications operators, internet providers and postal services.
Intercepting, among other provisions, includes the use of a “monitoring device,” physically viewing/inspecting the contents of any communication and diverting any communication from its intended destination, the bill notes.
The bill also states that in order to obtain an interception warrant, the commissioner of police, or someone acting on his behalf, would have to petition the attorney general to make an “ex parte” application to a judge in chambers.
This will be done in the interest of “national security,” the bill notes.
In an effort to further clarify the government’s efforts, Mrs Maynard-Gibson yesterday told reporters that the government’s only interest in the legislation continues to be placing law enforcement in the best position to combat crime.
Mrs Maynard-Gibson said the government remains determined to use every tool at its disposal in the fight against crime.
She added that the nature of crime, gang related crime and transnational crime, if not addressed could place the Bahamas in a predicament similar to that of Jamaica, whose criminal problems, she said, had placed the country’s economic survival in jeopardy for sometime.
“The Bahamas does not want to be like that and the government will not sit back and let that happen and the people of the Bahamas don’t expect that to happen,” Mrs Maynard Gibson said.
“This bill is a legitimate, lawful crime fighting tool. The Privy Council, which is the highest court in our land, said that our Listening Devices Act, which was passed in 1972 needed to be amended so that the concept of communication is modernised.
“(Additionally, the Privy Council) has said that we need to provide for the destruction of records that are gathered using this tool, and (that court) has said that we need to bring it into accordance with the highest international standards like the US, like the UK, and in our region, Trinidad (and Tobago) and St Kitts; which means that it is the independent Supreme Court that decides whether or not a communication may or may not be intercepted.”
She added: “The Supreme Court is charged with protecting our Constitution, our rights under the Constitution. Nobody in their right mind who would suggest, or ought to be suggesting, and people like Elsworth Johnson who was the president of the Bar (Association), supposed to be protecting the judiciary, to suggest that this bill violates privacy is criticising our independent judiciary and that is wrong.
“And this is not the time for political games for political expediency in an attempt to win a seat. This is crime and crime fighting and the safety of our people and of our economy is a very serious matter.”
Mr Johnson, who was ratified last week as the Free National Movement’s candidate for Yamacraw, on Monday called for Bahamians to organise protests and public resistance to the bill which he called “dangerous” spying legislation.
It is unclear when debate on the legislation will begin.