BY ROGAN SMITH
The government is in for a serious legal fight with Rights Bahamas as it seeks to rid The Bahamas of shanty towns. But, after suffering several embarrassing legal losses in recent months, most notably, the Shane Gibson bribery trial and the Frank Smith bribery and extortion trial, many are wondering if the government can win this fight.
Both former Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) MPs walked scot free after juries acquitted them of multiple charges. The government was convinced it would secure convictions.
Now, the public’s confidence in the Attorney General’s Office’s ability to win high profile cases is skaky at best.
Following the passage of the deadly Hurricane Dorian, the government issued a six-month no-build order in The Mudd, Pigeon Pea, Sand Bank and Farm Road communities in Abaco. Those communities, primarily occupied by Haitian migrants, sustained widespread devastation due to the storm.
The purpose of the construction ban was to allow recovery efforts to take place and to remove storm debris. While the remaining structures were being demolished and the areas cleaned up, many of the residents were subsequently moved to shelters.
Now, Rights Bahamas, a local human rights group, has filed injunctions to stop the demolition of shanty towns and says it will stop at nothing as it views the move as “xenophobic” and “petty.”
According to the affidavit that has been filed, the group is seeking a judicial review of the government’s proposed plan to demolish homes and other buildings in “several specific organic Haitian ethnic communities in New Providence, Abaco and elsewhere in The Bahamas.”
Attorney General, Carl Bethel, in response to the legal move, refused to back down, noting that “iron will meet iron.”
“The struggle to eradicate these unacceptable, unsafe and very dangerous conditions will continue in the courts and we expect that we will prevail because all we are asking is for every single resident in The Bahamas to live their life in a healthy, safe and sanitary way,” he said.
“No amount of glossy affidavits and words can justify or hide the fact that it is well documented that these shanty towns are unsafe conditions, particularly for the young girls, as well and not to mention surrounding communities and not to mention the adults who live in these areas.”
I certainly don’t think the government, or anyone else for that matter, ought to be cowering every time Rights Bahamas threatens to sue. And these days, it seems Rights Bahamas would sue a fly for landing on pig’s dung.
But, given the outcome of those recent high-profile trials, the Attorney General’s Office will have to have an airtight case and be prepared to utilize all of its resources to fight this group because money and time do not seem to be an object for Rights Bahamas.
I certainly understand why the government is seeking to eradicate the shanty towns. There are standards in the country that residents, Haitian or otherwise, must live by. And quite frankly, I would imagine that those residents would want to live in a more sanitary, organized environment.
Rights Bahamas knows what it wants to happen. It wants the government to stop tearing down the shanty towns. But, it has not suggested a proper alternative if it gets its wish. Are these residents to continue living in substandard conditions or should they create another shanty town? Both are unacceptable.
I cannot enter another person’s country and set up my home wherever I please, not get the proper permits to build and then cry foul when the system comes down on me.
This is why I continuously stress the need for the government to properly police this country and root out issues in their infancy stage. Allowing communities to be created and remain in place for years poses a serious issue years down the line when the government decides to get rid of them.
This is where it becomes problematic to uproot people’s lives after they have been allowed to exist in a certain state for so long.
In October, the attorney general said squatters may be entitled to compensation when the government compulsorily acquires the land they once lived on.
But, here’s the thing. Not everyone who lived in those communities qualifies as a squatter. There were residents who were paying rent to a landlord. So, they have no entitlement to the land. Those who set up homes on Crown land, which is owned by the government, are squatters. They had no permission to build, so they trespassed on the land.
There’s also the issue of the multiple laws that were broken, including the fact that many of them built homes without the proper building permits, occupancy certificates or proper inspection.
It is a well-documented fact that shanty towns are unsanitary and have been eyesores for many communities over the years.
Residents have often decried the existence of these communities. Many property owners have seen their property values diminish as a result. Police have often spoken on the crime that occurs in those communities.
It’s never easy enforcing the law when human beings are involved. It’s a complicated process.
The Attorney General’s Office has its work cut out for it and unfortunately, it doesn’t have the public’s confidence that it can fix this decades long problem. But, I believe the majority of Bahamians are hopeful that it will.