Attorney General Carl Bethel has defended the government’s decision to clear Abaco shantytowns and compulsorily acquire the land, which was reduced to a wide debris field by Hurricane Dorian in early September.
Bethel responded to a letter sent to the Office of the Attorney General by Fred Smith, QC, who took a swipe at the Minnis administration on the matter, claiming that it is violating an injunction handed down by a judge last year blocking the demolition of shantytown structures while a court matter in relation to those communities remains outstanding.
Bethel said there is no cause to complain that any plans to remove the debris from the destruction caused by the hurricane in any way, shape or form constitutes any violation of the injunction, and there is power under both the Environmental Health Services Act and the Buildings Regulations Act to accomplish this.
“As you are aware, in addition to environmental concerns caused by the deposit of noxious substances and other pollutants into the environment, there is the very real prospect that human remains are located among the debris and the rubble,” he said.
“These remains have to be located, recovered and processed according to the highest international and humanitarian standards.”
The attorney general pointed out that the law gives the minister with responsibility for works “special emergency powers” to demolish and remove structures made irreparably dangerous due to the occurrence of “flood, fire, hurricane or any other disaster”, subject only to preserving valuable contents for the owners of such premises to the extent such salvage is possible without endangering the safety of anyone.
“In fact, it ought to have been anticipated by you in any event that Hurricane Dorian created a fundamental change in circumstances which would have implications for the proceedings generally, and in particular for the terms of the current injunction, which might in the circumstances require modification,” Bethel stated.
In his letter to the Office of the Attorney General last week, Smith said “recent events do not change the terms of the injunction, which remains in full force and effect unless and until varied by the court”.
“Our clients continue to enjoy the same rights post-Dorian as they did pre-Dorian,” he insisted.
“Nor can the injunction be overridden or sidestepped by the use of other executive powers, which are alarmingly being vocally expressed, in very draconian and terrifying terms, to our clients, by the executive.”
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced in the House of Assembly early this month that the government intends to acquire the shantytown land in Abaco.
Shortly after the storm, the government issued an order prohibiting any rebuilding on the properties for at least six months.
Smith objected to all of these decisions.
The attorney general noted in his letter to Smith that the Acquisition of Land Act clearly sets out a process for the compulsory acquisition of land.
“And we are well aware as to how that procedure operates, including the prescription that the taking should be for a public purpose,” Bethel stated.
The AG also hit at comments Smith made about the prime minister in his letter.
Smith wrote: “It is distressing that the prime minister of The Bahamas heeds the cry of the lynch mob instead of rising above the fray demonstrating respect for the rule of law and compassion for fellow Christians that have just suffered a terrible disaster, and we respectfully encourage the prime minister to desist from further inflaming the fuels of violence in so many forms against our clients”.
But Bethel responded: “Even allowing for your usual incursion into sensational and incendiary language, this is an extremely irresponsible statement.
“With the greatest of respect, there are and have never been any lynch mobs in The Bahamas, and the metaphorical reference trivializes the serious historical injustice done to people of color in the United States and elsewhere.”
The AG added: “It is extremely irresponsible for you, and borders on defamatory, to charge the prime minister with ‘inflaming the fuels of violence in so many forms against our clients’.”
The attorney general challenged Smith to “produce one example where the prime minister or any other government official for that matter, has encouraged violence against your clients, or any other group of persons”.
“Whether you agree with the statements or actions of the prime minister or the government, no one has encouraged any violence against anyone,” Bethel stated.
“Dorian survivors (your clients among them) have been treated with great humanitarian concerns, and given the benefit of the full resources of the government, as well as access to the assistance provided by the international community.
“You might also wish to note that the same prime minister you are lambasting has also just announced plans to build a $6.4 million Family Relief Facility in Abaco, and it is very likely that many of the ‘clients’ you mention will also benefit from this proposal.”
Bethel stated that while the government understands that shantytown residents are asserting their rights “which they allege to have”, the government has to act in the best interests of the entire country, “and will always do so within the construct of the rule of law, with utmost concern for human dignity and the rights of the individual”.