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Bethel: ‘Spy Bill’ Not Set In Stone

ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel.

ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel.

By KHRISNA RUSSELL

Deputy Chief Reporter

krussell@tribunemedia.net

AMID calls for the Interception of the Communication Bill to be permanently shelved, Attorney General Carl Bethel yesterday said the proposed legislation in its current form could “possibly” be amended, adding consideration will be given to additional changes at the Cabinet level.

Nonetheless, Mr Bethel defended the bill as not only critical to strengthening law enforcement, but he told The Tribune despite criticisms it is different from the original version advanced under the former Christie administration in 2017.

In a note to this newspaper, Mr Bethel said the earlier ICB applied to “any offence” and would even come into force for minor crimes, including stealing by reason of employment or planning an illegal political demonstration.

However, this new bill he said would only apply in circumstances where there are serious offences like murder, terrorism, cybercrime, and drug trafficking, among other things.

He further responded to Progressive Liberal Party Leader Philip “Brave” Davis’ argument that the ICB still leaves too much power in the hands of politicians. He was adamant last week at Parliament that the bill under the former government placed the power of issuing an interception order in the hands of judges.

Mr Bethel said concerns about the Listening Devices Act’s provision inclusion in the new bill also will be addressed.

“The issue of political consent is the exact issue in respect of which Cabinet will be asked to form a view. The alternative could be a judge or a stipendiary and circuit magistrate,” Mr Bethel said.

Rights Bahamas has also taken issue with the bill facilitating authorities being able to issue an interception warrant on what they called “broad,” “amorphous and ill-defined grounds.” This, the group said, will give way to corruption and abuse of power.

Asked about this Mr Bethel said: “Yes there is a possibility. The issue of judicial oversight is broadly accepted in the bill. The concern was overloading the courts with listening devices applications. Those aspects of the bill before Parliament relating to communications, data collection and entry warrants are much more intrusive to the citizen and clearly demand judicial oversight from the very beginning.

“There is judicial oversight. From the very beginning, no interception warrant can be obtained without independent oversight.”

Yesterday, Rights Bahamas called on the government to permanently shelve the “invasive and oppressive Spy Bill.”

If passed, Rights Bahamas said the legislation would give way to clandestine spy agencies invading the privacy of citizens. The organisation said adequate laws already exist to achieve continued crime fighting measures.

“We also remind the FNM that their predecessors tried to bring a similar bill, only to be halted in their tracks by vocal opposition from NGOs and human rights organisations, who rightly saw the powers afforded by the bill as unconstitutional,” Rights Bahamas said in a press statement.

“Without in any way compromising on our total rejection to the bill as a whole, Rights Bahamas must register its particular alarm over the fact that although the FNM had promised to remove some of the most egregious provisions in the legislation, no new draft has been circulated for public consultation.

“The most terrifying powers granted by the bill – which we must assume still stand – include: the ability for the authorities to be issued an interception warrant on such amorphous and ill-defined grounds as suspicion of threats to ‘public order,’ ‘public morality’ and ‘public health.’ These terms are so broad as to be utterly meaningless and therefore sufficiently pliable to fit virtually any meaning a government might choose.

“This is the perfect recipe for corruption and abuse; in no time at all, politicians of all stripes would be using these provisions to spy on their political rivals and intimidate civil society into silence.

“Additionally, the bill would allow the authorities to go into any Bahamian home or office to, for example, intercept an arriving letter. They would also be allowed to install interception devices (ie spy software) in people’s homes.”

The Free National Movement’s advancement of the ICB comes a little more than a year after using a draft by the Christie administration as a weapon against the Progressive Liberal Party in their general election campaign.

Last week in the House of Assembly during debate on the bill, PLP MPs laughed when National Security Minister Marvin Dames said people should stop calling the bill a “Spy Bill,” a characterization the FNM embraced last year.

Opposition Leader Philip “Brave” Davis said the party will not vote for the bill in its current form.

Unlike the original bill tabled in early 2017, he said, the current bill contains provisions from the Listening Devices Act, the 1972 law the PLP wanted to replace and rectify by its interception bill.

The provisions of the LDA empowers the minister of national security to allow authorised people to use a listening device for no more than 30 days. The provisions also involve the attorney general in the authorisation of a listening device, mandating that she or he consult with the commissioner of police before a communication can be intercepted.

Such involvement of politicians, Mr Davis argued, goes against the intent of the original bill drafted by the Christie administration which sought to remove this power and put the Supreme Court in charge of authorising interceptions of communication.

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