Save The Bays legal director, Fred Smith, QC
NASSAU, Bahamas — What has been described as The Bahamas government’s latest attack on local NGOs has been denounced as reckless, dangerous and a clear sign of how desperate the ruling Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) party has become.
Over the last year, the PLP has steadily escalated its assault on Save The Bays (STB), after the noted environmental group took legal action against the party’s major funder, developer Peter Nygard. As unrest grew over its mismanagement of the economy, lack of transparency and increasingly authoritarian behaviour, the party also began to attack social commentators, bloggers and protest organizers.
“Now, on the eve of an election, an extremely unpopular government is frantic to appease Nygard, presumably to gain access to campaign funding, so they have taken the reckless, extremely dangerous decision to officially accuse us of being terrorists,” said STB legal director, Fred Smith, QC.
“Worst of all, in an effort to disguise their true intentions, they have leveled the same accusation at scores of other NGOs – many of which have never locked horns with the government.”
He was referring to the fact that on Friday, March 31, STB received a letter from the Registrar of Companies demanding that the NGO turn over its financial records in accordance with the section of the law regarding suspected funding for terrorism.
STB has since filed a constitutional challenge alleging a violation the group’s right to privacy. In response, the Registrar claimed that the move was a routine request and had been issued to more than 100 NGOs.
Smith stressed that STB and any other group that chooses to resist this demand cannot be accused of unreasonably withholding information or rejecting a reasonable request.
“There is nothing routine or reasonable about this,” Smith said. “The fact of the matter is, the Registrar specifically requested the information under the Companies (Non-Profit Organization) Regulations, 2014, Article 13(2), which only requires for the provision of such information to assess the extent to which ‘the registered non-profit organization is being used to assist terrorist financing’.
“The government has basically announced that they suspect the entire NGO community of funding terrorism, without presenting a single shred of evidence. This wild and dangerous accusation represents a fundamental violation of due process. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty?”
According to Smith, other NGOs have been recklessly maligned by this request – “tarred with the same brush” simply in an attempt cover up the PLP’s attack on STB and a handful of other groups which have sought to hold the government accountable.
“We are not in the slightest convinced the government even wants our financial records; the point of this whole exercise is to tarnish our names and reputations by painting us as terrorists in an effort to intimidate us in to silence,” he said.
“The pattern is clear – first, they unlawfully accessed STB’s emails and tried to paint us as seditionists. That backfired with the Supreme Courts fining a Cabinet minister $150,000 for violating our privacy.
“Then, agents of the state colluded with individuals in the Nygard camp to threaten our lives and safety, but that also blew up in their face, with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issuing official precautionary measures for members of STB and ordering the government to ensure our safety.
“The PLP is now clearly at the end of its rope and senior members have become dangerously unhinged, actually accusing respected members of civil society of terrorism – as happens in the worst and most brutal tin-pot dictatorships around the world.”
He said STB has launched judicial review proceedings over the attorney general’s decision to make the bogus accusation and, in doing so, hopes to lay bare the “unholy alliance” between the PLP and certain developers, once and for all.
“Aside from being an unconstitutional breach of freedom of expression the Registrar’s demand is a clear attempt to intimidate and oppress STB and others into silence, as the group’s challenges to unregulated development have upset the governing party’s wealthy foreign funders – in particular Peter Nygard.”
Smith went on to accuse the PLP of placing the country on the road to failed state status over the past five years.
He said the public should be alarmed by the lengths the party is willing to go to neutralize perceived opponents, as paranoid leaders can target anyone and everyone unpredictably. Meanwhile, he said the country is being severely embarrassed on the international stage.
“All Bahamians should be extremely concerned. If they can accuse us with a straight face of something so preposterous as terrorism, literally anyone could be next,” he said.
“The idea that STB’s esteemed international board of directors – including individuals such as former US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and renowned environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – are secretly e.g. members of ISIS is patently ridiculous, laughable if it were not such a serious accusation! Yet it will have a critical and lasting effect on our international relations. That the PLP would stoop to this level, just to win an election, is shameful, unpatriotic and should be contemned by all right thinking Bahamians.”
Smith urged Bahamians to see the attacks on STB and other NGOs in the wider context of a wide scale anti-democratic trend under the PLP.
“For five long years, the party has failed to deliver on its promise to pass and enact a progressive Freedom of Information Act; meanwhile under the cover of night, they brought forward the notorious Spy Bill and were seeking to force it through Parliament without the public having any say.
“In a nutshell, what this means is that while the citizenry are being denied their right to transparency and accountability, the government is seeking to give itself the power to tap your phone, hack your emails, break into your home and install cameras and listening devices.
“What’s more, the Spy Bill would allow them to target individuals for perceived violations of ‘public morality’ and ‘public health’. Literally anyone can be made to fit this description and you can guarantee that political opponents and anyone who has questioned the government will be the first to have their privacy violated.
“This is the same government that accepted riot gear, armored cars and tear gas grenades from the Chinese government, the only possible intent being to use this brutal equipment on their own population. And, they have put military personnel on the streets of the capital with the excuse that they are needed to help in the fight against crime. The PLP are following a well established road map to repressive dictatorship through the threat of force and a sinister surveillance culture designed to intimidate anyone who would seek to exercise their freedom of expression.”