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Nov 28, 2003

House swears in newest member

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It was a day of old and new on Independence Hill as the House of Representatives today finished up some pending business and welcomed a new member. News 5′s Patrick Jones has the view from the press gallery.

John Saldivar, Area Representative, Cayo South

“I, John Saldivar, do swear that I will bear true faith and allegiance to Belize and will uphold the constitution and the law. And that I will conscientiously and impartially and to the best of my ability discharge my duties as a member of this honourable house and do right to all manner of people without fear or favour, affection or ill will, so help me God.”

Patrick Jones, Reporting

With his mother and a small group of friends watching from the gallery, newly elected member John Saldivar officially took his seat on the opposition aisle in the House of Representatives. And when the formality was complete, parliamentarians got down to the business of legislation. While ten bills were brought up for their initial reading, the first piece of legislation that drew particular interest came from Minister of Home Affairs Ralph Fonseca.

Ralph Fonseca, Minister of Home Affairs

“Madam speaker I rise to introduce a bill for an Act to amend the Firearms Act, Chapter 143 of the substantive laws of Belize, revised edition 2000, to strengthen the penalties for firearms offences, to provide for a longer duration of firearms licenses, to provide for matters connected therewith, or incidental thereto.”

In other words, bad news for criminals. Fonseca says while the stiffer penalties for crimes committed with guns are draconian, that’s just how he wants them.

Patrick Jones

“Ten thousand dollars on a first offence, isn’t that a little too steep?”

Ralph Fonseca

“Well we have to be real. In many, many, cases the guys that are giving us trouble with firearms are backed up by bigger people. And the way it works today, if the police breaks into one of these crack houses lets say, and there is one firearm, then the person that has never been charged puts up his hand. And because he’s never been charged before, he’s considered a first offender, and the guy that’s backing him up, it doesn’t cost him much. Now it will cost him up to twenty-five thousand dollars or that individual will go to jail and he won’t take it that lightly.”

Repeat offenders who appear in the Magistrate’s Court will have to contend with a minimum three years jail time, while at the Supreme Court level first offenders face a minimum of three years and maximum seven years at Hattieville. Fonseca says while there may be initial negative reaction to the stiffer penalties, they were arrived at after extensive consultations by the Crimes Control Council.

Ralph Fonseca

“But I don’t think anybody will argue with me that since firearms have become commonplace in Belize that we in fact have more difficulties as it relates to violent crime. And unless we deal with that also, then we are wasting our time with everything else. And I don’t think Belizeans will argue with me either that the crimes that have been created of late are not gang related. Many of them are crimes of passion. Because this firearm is available it’s used, instead of the old days you slap one another or punch or whatever, you shoot. And once you’ve shot and you’ve shot fatally, that’s it. So we’re trying to help those people to help themselves in a way.”

But one piece of legislation that won’t help the government’s P.R., came from the desk of Attorney General Godfrey Smith who fast tracked the bill to repeal the Macal River Hydroelectric Development Act.

Godfrey Smith, Attorney General

“Madam speaker we on this side introduced this bill and the bill contained essentially two things. One, it declared and made certain affirmations that the government believes and it continues to believe that the Chalillo dam project offers the most economic option for Belizeans in terms of the existing feasible options that are available. Secondly, the bill at the time pronounced or declared that notwithstanding any rules or regulations or orders of any courts or any other bodies, the Chalillo dam project would be proceeded with.”

But now that he believes the law has done what it was supposed to do, Smith says it’s time to remove it from the books. The move, however, has left some observers thinking that a Privy Council hearing next week will still single out the government for criticism despite the repeal of the law. The Attorney General says that’s not the case.

Godfrey Smith

“Now the Government of Belize does in fact acknowledge that the bill has raised a lot of questions. Whether those are bona fide questions, certainly a lot has been said locally in the press, abroad especially by those entities that support those who oppose the dam. We believe that in order to ensure that when this case comes up the issues are squarely and narrowly focussed on, that the bill, because it has the potential to act as a red herring and to distract attention completely from what are very simple issues to what are more complex perhaps controversial issues of constitutionality, we believe that it should be repealed. We can say that because arguments have already been exchanged and there has been discussion with lawyers on both sides of the fence. So we already know that the stage is being set for a big debate and discussion on a piece of legislation which really and truly has nothing to do with the merits of whether procedures were followed for the environmental clearance of the project.”

Other legislation introduced today included the Caribbean Court of Justice and CARICOM Bills, legislation to regulate technical and vocational education, and to establish a National AIDS Commission, and a Belize Archives and Records Service to take over functions currently being performed by the Archives Department which is this week celebrating thirty-eight years of existence. Patrick Jones, for News 5.

Those bills passed at today’s House meeting will now go to the Senate for ratification at a special sitting on Monday in Belmopan.

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