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Mar 22, 2017

COLA Walks Tall Away from “Belcan 6” Bonfire Charges

They have been flying under the radar, but today months after they were charged for setting a bonfire at the BelCan Bridge, a group of activists went back to court on what was their final appearance.  They soon exited the courtroom of Magistrate Carlon Mendoza freed of charges due to lack of evidence.  The COLA activists, including President Giovannie Brackett, were arrested during a tumultuous period when teachers were taking to the streets against the government.  Today, we asked whether it was Belmopan’s way of silencing them. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports. 

 

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

At the height of tensions between the Belize National Teachers Union and the Barrow administration in October 2016, someone, or a group of persons, deliberately set light to a heap of used tires on the Belcan Bridge.  It remains unclear whether the purpose of that fire was to spur an unrest akin to that which erupted across Belize City in 2005, amid a somewhat similar standoff between the unions and government.  Whatever the motive, the destructive burning, though eerily reminiscent of what took place over a decade before, failed to catalyze widespread social and political discontent.  Instead, several men were arrested and charged in connection with the fire.  Among them was Perry ‘Sticks’ Smith.

 

Perry ‘Sticks’ Smith

Perry ‘Sticks’ Smith, Social Activist

“I was at the teachers’ headquarters listening to the B.N.T.U.’s meeting, listening to the rally.  So on my way going home dis da weh I run into, Isani.  I cyant just cross di bridge, yoh undastand mi, being wahn activist.  I haftu sih weh di go ahn, find out weh di go ahn.  So me being me, wahn activist, I wahn know weh di happen, weh di go ahn, yoh undastand me, because then I sih tires di burn.”

 

Perhaps it may have been that curiosity that landed Smith in hot water in the first place.  He has maintained throughout that he had no involvement in the fire.

 

Perry Smith

“Those who know Sticks, I dah wahn activist, yoh undastand.  I do community works every single month.  Every day I deh pan di move.  I ride round pan wah bicycle and pan wahn bicycle, wahn twenty-six inch beach cruiser, how could I possibly ker twenty-odd tires pan wahn bridge?”

 

The backdrop, as we’ve reported, was the heightened state of affairs between the B.N.T.U. and government, in the middle of an ongoing strike over a number of national issues, including a salary adjustment for teachers.  Also arrested and charged along with Sticks was Geovannie Brackett, President of Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action.  According to Brackett, he was dragged into the matter solely on an unfounded basis of suspicion.

 

Geovannie Brackett

Geovannie Brackett, President, COLA

“This move was just a simple move to immobilize COLA and its affiliates.  It was, for us, a move to shut us down, to cripple us, and so things like this budget reading, for example, the government knows that this would have been a very controversial budget reading, in a time where the government is pretty much broke.  So they saw what we did together when we garnered over two thousand people that day at the National Assembly and they are very smart so they tried to use that incident to try to hold us down so that we couldn’t mobilize.”

 

Attorney Kareem Musa represented the accused men.  He too, believes that it was all a ruse created to muzzle the grassroots organization.

 

Kareem Musa

Kareem Musa, Attorney for COLA

“As you would recall, a few months ago Mr. Geovannie Brackett, the President of COLA, along with Perry Smith and four other individuals were charged with causing a bonfire on Belcan Bridge.  That was some months ago.  At the very outset we had indicated that this was a bogus charge, that in fact it was political victimization at its finest, that the administration and the people in power could not take the heat that Geovannie Brackett and the other members of COLA were bringing to them.  It was a very tense period and I think what it was on the part of the government, it was an attempt to try to stifle and try to shut up Geovannie Brackett and to try to quiet them down.”

 

Has G.O.B. been successful on that end?

 

Geovannie Brackett

“All the charges were dismissed today, this morning, against all of us who were charged for the burning of the tires on Belcan Bridge.  This is a relief, I think, to all of us, especially for myself, Mr. Howard [and] Mr. Perry ‘Sticks’ Smith who is very busy moving around the country, traveling, making connections, I mean this has been a very huge inconvenience.”

 

Isani Cayetano

“Do you believe that the government, if you were unfairly, as a group, singled out, have been effectively silenced as a result of this?  You’ve gone below the radar for quite a while now, what’s to happen next from COLA and has the government effectively shut down COLA’s voice in the street?”

 

Geovannie Brackett

“Well, they have tried but the answer is no.  Because, you see, how COLA operates even though some people accuse us of wanting to jump on every issue, there are times we take a breathing space to evaluate, evaluate ourselves, evaluate the current situation and climate in the country.”

 

Despite being acquitted of all charges, COLA’s legal counsel suggests that those who were arrested and charged should seriously consider filing a civil suit against government for malicious prosecution. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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