By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE government’s plan to reintroduce the controversial Interception of Communications Bill is tantamount to a “political suicide pill,” according to Grand Bahama Human Rights Association President Fred Smith, QC, who called the legislation a “rape” of privacy.
The prominent attorney told The Tribune he was surprised by how quickly the “recently popularly elected government” opted to “unnecessarily court unpopularity” with its plan to bring the bill to Parliament.
Meanwhile, in a separate interview, former Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson called for the latest incarnation of the bill to be passed as soon as possible, but lamented how politics doomed her party’s version of the legislation.
Last week, Attorney General Carl Bethel told The Nassau Guardian that the Minnis administration intends to bring the bill to Parliament this term. The Tribune revealed exclusively how the Christie administration quietly tabled a similar bill in February. Public uproar over the bill and resistance from the Free National Movement led the former administration to shelve the controversial piece of legislation.
Mr Smith, highlighting the FNM’s disapproval of the bill while in opposition, questioned what has changed since the party was elected in May.
“(This) makes no political or social sense,” Mr Smith insisted. “I have no objection to the police and other regulatory agencies hunting down criminals who they have reasonable or probable cause to suspect are breaking the law. However, the ‘Spy Bill,’ however it is to be drafted, turns the presumption of innocence upside down and people are assumed to be guilty rather than presumed to be innocent.”
Mr Smith opposed the Interception of Communications Bill as proposed by the former administration. The Christie administration proposed the interception of material would be done in the “interest of national security,” which was defined as protecting the country from “threats of sabotage, espionage, terrorist acts, terrorism or subversion.”
Mr Smith at the time expressed concern over what the term subversion could entail. He said subversion could be perceived as any simple form of “political dissent,” adding that this can be construed to mean anyone openly disagreeing with the government.
Mr Smith added over the weekend: “Everybody wants their privacy protected. The ‘Spy Bill’ is a rape of everybody’s privacy. The Constitution protects the right to privacy. Why is it so urgent to push it down the public’s throat right after the election when the FNM was so opposed to it before the election? What has changed? Is the FNM a political party of hypocrites?”
Mr Smith argued that in a democracy, there is always a balance to be struck between the power of the state and the protection of the rights of the individual.
He stated: “I don’t know what the intended bill contains but it seems very odd that this government would bring such an unpopular bill to Parliament during the first legislative assembly. One would have thought that they had better things to focus on.
“Yes fighting crime is important. And it was declared, pre-election to be a priority, but the government has the necessary tools and it only needs the political will to fight crime effectively. Ravaging our right to privacy is not the solution to crime.
“No matter how many laws are passed, if the Cabinet ministers and the regulatory authorities created by Parliament do not have the financial and human resources and the expertise put at their disposal to effectively fight the criminals, no matter how many laws are passed, crime will continue to escalate.”
Mr Smith urged the government to withdraw the bill from its first parliamentary session. He also recommended the government put out a white paper explaining the rationale for the bill and for at least six months of public consultation.
Subsequent to that, Mr Smith said a green paper should be released, followed by a return to Parliament with “something that can be rationalised.”
He warned if these steps aren’t taken, his organisation will fight “this rape of our constitutional right to privacy” to the bitter end.
Mrs Maynard-Gibson became a lightning rod for criticism from activist groups and the FNM when she promoted the bill as a part of the Christie administration’s agenda. Earlier this year, she announced that it had been shelved in response to criticism and calls for more consultation.
Asked for her reaction to news that the new administration intends to bring the bill back despite its past criticism of it, she said: “I believe that attorneys general since independence have done their best to exercise their discretion in the requisite quasi judicial fashion.
“Unfortunately, for political and other reasons we have and will continue to be victim of mischievous and unfounded criticisms––that is the nature of democracy. Today, as yesterday, the fact remains that 21st century methods must be used to combat transnational and gang related crime in the world. It is my hope the Bahamas puts politics aside and embraces national building.
“Also, as the excellent OAG consultants and advisors continue to say, the Bahamas cannot continue to ignore the clear advice of Her Majesty’s Privy Council. The Interception Communication’s Act is a necessary crime fighting tool and I hope that it is passed ASAP.”
Mr Bethel told The Nassau Guardian last week that the Minnis administration’s version of the bill has “tighter controls” than that of its predecessor.
However, he said, he expects the bill “will be no less controversial.”
Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis had described the Christie administration’s bill as “a breach of the privacy of the public at large.”