WHAT is the value of a year of your freedom? How about two years? How about nine?
For nine years and nine months, Matthew Sewell lost his liberty despite never being convicted of a single crime.
Mr Sewell’s story is a picture of a justice system that delivers anything but justice. First, in 2006, he was detained for two years before being granted bail. Then, three years later, he was detained for more than four years without trial. In 2013, he was granted bail and previous charges were dismissed, but then was arrested again and accused of housebreaking. While on bail for that charge, he was again taken back into custody for a different accusation, for which he was never charged. When the housebreaking charge did reach court, it was dismissed – yet Mr Sewell was taken back to prison again.
Sadly, it is far from the first time this has happened. Another notable case readers may be familiar with is that of Atain Takitota.
Mr Takitota was arrested in 1992 by immigration officers in Nassau. He had no money, no passport, spoke no English but claimed to be a Japanese citizen, although authorities in Tokyo denied it.
Aged around 50 years old, his only crime was to be a homeless foreigner. For that, he spent the next eight years of his life held without charge in the maximum security wing at Fox Hill prison. He tried to kill himself three times, and only found a path to freedom thanks to the assistance of a prison officer who brought him to the attention of local lawyers. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that his eight-year imprisonment was unconstitutional. His deportation order was set aside, and the government was ordered to give him the right to earn a living in The Bahamas. He was awarded a shockingly inadequate $1,000 in damages, and his lawyer sued, bringing Mr Takitota an award in 2006 of $500,000 plus court costs, a sum later increased again on appeal.
There will be those who protest at Mr Sewell and his lawyer, Fred Smith QC, asking for $27m in damages, but what price should we set on someone’s liberty? Some will complain that it is Fred Smith involved again – but it is a court that decided Mr Sewell was held unlawfully, not Mr Smith.
Worse, Mr Takitota’s case showed the failings of our system – and we failed to act upon it to ensure people’s lives were not ripped away without any thought to the timely delivery of justice.
Years in jail without facing trial is of no use to anyone – not the accused, not the victims of crime.
Victims do not need to be brought back to the court having lived with years of wondering whether their case will be resolved. Those accused of those crimes do not need to wait years to be given the chance to prove their innocence. The slow motion of the Bahamian justice system helps no one.
These cases are not the only ones – far from it. Will we learn from them? Or will we see the Attorney General contesting Mr Sewell’s lawsuit rather than speaking out about the failings his case exposes, and the reforms being carried out to stop it happening again?
The Attorney General, Carl Bethel, need only turn to one of his own colleagues to hear more about Mr Sewell’s case – Adrian Gibson MP was part of the legal team that secured Mr Sewell’s release.
Writing in The Tribune in 2015, Mr Gibson said: “We have seen more than enough instances of the State showing an eerie willingness to detain someone and throw away the keys without any regard to matters being heard in a court within a reasonable time or at all. The only time the State seems to care is when it’s brought to the attention of the international media and we, as a country, become subject to great embarrassment because of the foolish decisions and thoughtlessness of the few.”
The price the Bahamian government will have to pay in Mr Sewell’s case if small in comparison to the price people are paying for having their lives taken away from them. The question is not how much should be paid out in compensation, the question is what are we doing to stop this happening again?
We fear the answer to that is not enough.