Rights watchdog in dark on new law

Cayman’s human rights watchdog was
not notified of new legislation that affects the civil rights of criminal
suspects, the body’s chief revealed on Thursday.

Richard Coles, chairman of the
Human Rights Commission, told senior civil servants at the opening of a series
of lectures on human rights that the commission had not been aware that the
Legislative Assembly was poised to pass the Criminal Evidence (Witness
Anonymity) Bill, 2010, last week.

Mr. Coles said a priority of the
commission was “to examine from a human rights’ perspective new legislation brought
forward by the government that has human rights connotations”.

He said he would approach Deputy
Governor Donovan Ebanks to request the commission be given advance notice and
copies of relevant legislation.

“Unfortunately, that was not the
case with the new criminal evidence bill which has just been passed, and so we
want to try to make sure in the future that we do get an advanced copy so that
we can ensure that human rights elements are being properly taken account of,”
Mr. Coles said.

The bill allows police and courts
to use statements from anonymous witnesses as evidence in proceedings where it
is established that the witness may be in danger and would not otherwise
testify.

The bill was made public Tuesday,
23 February. when it was posted in the Government Gazette and passed by
lawmakers on Monday, 1 March.

On the same day, legislators also
passed The Bail (Amendment) Bill, 2010, which allows those released without
charge on police bail to have an electronic monitoring device attached to them
if they are released under curfew conditions.

Mr. Coles said it was important
that the Human Rights Commission had input on new laws that impact human
rights.

He said that the commission,
through the attorney general’s office or the Legal Department, would also
examine existing legislation and regulations to ensure they complied with human
rights.

Attorney General Sam Bulgin told
members of the Legislative Assembly on Monday that there had also not been time
to consult the Cayman Islands Criminal Defence Bar Association on the criminal evidence
bill, describing violent crime “the beast that is haunting us”.

Governor Duncan Taylor, also
speaking at the opening of Thursday’s lecture series, warned against short-term
solutions to rising crime that may lead to human rights abuses.

Citing the examples of the British
government’s introduction of judge-only courts for Irish Republican Army terror
suspects in Northern Ireland, known as Diplock trials, and the detention of
alleged terrorists in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba by the United States following the
9/11 attacks, he said such steps addressed short-term needs, but not long-term
human rights issues.

He said that while the issue of
violent crime was obviously of great concern to the people of Cayman, suspected
gangsters and criminals would have be tried in courts of law.

“The concern over crime is
accompanied by calls for radical measures, for example… to make it impossible
for people in prison to communicate effectively with those outside prison and
have an influence on the way in which gangs operate. That gives me concern. I
think it is an instinctive reaction,” he said.

The governor added: “People say ‘we
know who some of the gangsters are, why not just take them out, get rid of them?’
It is an understandable reaction, but of course, we don’t know who these
gangsters are, not beyond a reasonable doubt, not to the extent that we could
get a conviction in a court of law. If we do know, they will be arrested and
appear before a judge and jury.”

He said it was important for senior
policy makers and government members to be aware that compromising human rights
for short term objectives “can create enormous problems in the long term”.

Under the constitution, the Bill of
Rights will come into force in 2012.

Mr. Coles warned civil servants
that they had a major role to play in ensuring that the implementation of human
rights in legislation and in common law was done correctly.

“It is a lot of work. There is a
good reason three years was allowed [to implement the Bill of Rights]. We are
going to need every single month of the three years to get this work done. If
we don’t, once the Bill of Rights is in force, there will be multitude of
lawsuits arising out of it if we have not got our act together,” Mr. Coles
said.

He added that those cases would be
costly, time-consuming and “hugely embarrassing” for Cayman internationally.

Topics being covered at the two-day
series of lectures include human rights in law enforcement, civil and criminal
law applications in human rights and issues of constitutional change.

2-Richard-Coles-and-Duncan-Taylor.jpg

Chairman of the Human Rights Commission Richard Coles, left, and Governor Duncan Taylor await their turn to speak at the opening of a human rights lecture series on Thursday.
Photo: Norma Connolly
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