By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
RIGHTS Bahamas said yesterday it would not relent in taking legal action over the government’s decision to compulsorily acquire shanty town land, branding the move “xenophobic and petty”.
The local human rights watchdog said if this means fighting tooth and nail throughout the courts and up to the Privy Council to prevent a “terrible abuse of power,” then it was fully prepared to do so.
Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced in Parliament last week that he directed Attorney General Carl Bethel to begin the process towards taking over the land where unregulated migrant communities once stood.
However, doing so is expected to be a lengthy process, according to Mr Bethel yesterday who confirmed that many things had to be done before a notice of intent for acquisition is issued.
“Matters are sort of in abeyance because of the condition of Mr (Fred) Smith,” Mr Bethel told The Tribune yesterday.
Mr Smith survived a near fatal paragliding accident in Italy that required five-hour surgery last month. He had been paragliding in the Dolomite Mountains of the Italian Alps, when an accident led to him dislocating and shattering his left ankle, breaking his left tibia, dislocating and slicing his right ankle and breaking two vertebrae.
Mr Bethel continued: “We are speaking with a representative, his counsel over here, seeking to clear away what we call interlocutory matters. There are some applications for discovery documents and things like that so we’re trying to in a sense get the nod to go ahead and have those matters heard in Smith’s absence, which you know he is lead counsel so it depends on what he says.
“This is the shanty town case and so there are some interlocutory matters that need to be cleared out so that we can set it down for a date for trial. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Mr Bethel said he had no idea how many people stood to be compensated under laws that uphold squatter’s rights nor could he say how much of the shanty town land was privately owned.
“We can’t just wave a wand to do that. It takes a lot of review and investigation. People have to come forward (and) state their position,” he said.
“We are not at that stage yet. That stage will happen after the notice of intent for acquisition is issued and that can’t be issued until the land is properly surveyed.
“Once the land is properly surveyed and we have a proper plan as we call it, then notice would go out in newspapers and we post it at the administrator’s office and on the land. We aren’t at that stage because we still have to get the land surveyed.”
In a statement to The Tribune yesterday, Rights Bahamas said the government could not just use Hurricane Dorian as an excuse to take away property rights of people who once called those unregulated villages home.
“They cannot be discriminated against under the law,” Rights Bahamas said. “Their homes, their possessions cannot just be taken away from them. It is unconstitutional to target them just because they are different, because they are poor, or because some of them allegedly didn’t build to code, or because their neighbourhoods are unsanitary. All of these issues exist in Over-the-Hill communities in Nassau, yet no one is proposing that the government compulsorily acquire the land from the Bahamians who live there.
“These communities have been there for decades and many of the occupants have possessory rights under the law. The government can’t just use Dorian as an excuse to take away their property rights and discriminate against people because of their ethnic heritage.
“Clearly, the small minded, petty and xenophobic thinking behind this declaration is pursuant to an already existing agenda to exterminate communities of Haitian ethnicity, which is currently challenged by an ongoing court action. The government was blocked from taking away these people’s property rights by the court, so now they are seeking to use Dorian as an excuse to do it through the back door. This is totally illegal and utterly reprehensible.
“The storm might have destroyed people’s homes, but it did not abolish their property rights. The government has no legal right to dispossess these people.
“Just like every other community, they have a right to go back to rebuild. Of course, the rebuilding must be to code, but the process of considering their applications must be on the same basis that other applications are to be considered for every other person in every other community that was destroyed by Dorian.”
Following the monster storm’s passage, the Minnis administration issued a six-month prohibition ban for all Abaco shanty towns.
However, Rights Bahamas said the order should not have only been directed at those areas.
“It should have been a prohibition order in respect of all communities, not just the Haitian-Bahamian ones. Numerous international organisations and media houses have taken note of the government’s barbaric targeting of these defenceless victims of the storm.
“The country’s name is being dragged through the mud yet again over the issue of immigration enforcement. When will we learn?
“Rights Bahamas will take legal action over this abuse. We will sue the government in defence of people’s constitutional rights. We are committed to fighting tooth and nail, through the courts and up to the Privy Council if necessary, to prevent this terrible abuse of power from ever becoming a reality,” the organisation said yesterday.