The Council of the Antigua and Barbuda Bar Association has taken note of a widely-circulated WhatsApp message alleged to be authored by the Prime Minister, which the Prime Minister has not confirmed. The message, said to be addressed to Asot Michael, Member of Parliament for the Constituency of St. Peter, accused the MP of corruption going back 25 years, which he has denied. The message specifically accused the MP of corruptly paying the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to protect him in the IHI Investigation into the theft of public funds. The DPP has issued a strong denial of this allegation.
The mandate of the Antigua and Barbuda Bar Association, as outlined in section 5 of the Legal Profession Act, 2008, includes the following:
protect and assist the public in Antigua and Barbuda in all matters relating to law
promote, maintain and support the administration of justice and the rule of law
provide an ongoing public education program on basic issues of law and current legislation It is on this basis that the Council makes the following statements on this issue.
- Members of Parliament and the government must never seek to undermine the judiciary and legal system in Antigua and Barbuda. No citizen or resident should ever do this. The Council denounces the impugning of the office of Director of Public Prosecution without providing any evidence of wrongdoing by the DPP. Citizens, particularly those in high office, should not use the ease of social media to make quick, tit-for-tat, unfounded allegations. The Council notes with concern the increasing tendency to make such allegations via social media, perhaps because these allegations do not appear to attract much legal actions and remedies. If any citizen or resident, member of government, parliament and the opposition has evidence of corruption and wrongdoing by another, the proper action is to refer the matter or cause the matter to be referred to the police authorities for investigation. The police then ought to carry out an investigation into the matter.
- One of the major principles of our system of government is the separation of powers of the three branches of government, that is, Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. The principle states that while the three branches are expected to work together for the good of the country, each branch is separate and must act as a check on the other. For example, if a citizen or resident feels aggrieved by an act of the Executive, he or she may take his case to the courts (the Judiciary) for adjudication of the matter. If a private citizen or resident feels aggrieved by an act of another private citizen or resident, he or she may take his case to the police authorities (in criminal matters) or to the courts (in civil matters). A good example of this in civil matters is the law of defamation, which is the lowering of a person (besmirching his character) in the eyes of right-thinking members of society by social media or otherwise.
- The Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda carries out a special role in society. They enforce the laws of the country, particularly the criminal laws. To do this they may be forced to detain and arrest persons, deprive them of their liberty, and in many cases charge and bring them up for trial before the Judiciary. Even though administratively the Police may be considered part of the Executive, it is imperative that they act independently of the Executive when carrying out their investigative role and bringing charges against citizens and residents. This is to prevent abuse and oppression by those high up in authority, for an individual’s liberty is sacrosanct under our Constitution. The government must never at any time be seen to order the police, or give the impression that the Police does its bidding to harass, lock up and prosecute persons in the society. This is wrong and unacceptable in a democratic society and it undermines confidence in law enforcement and the legal system. The Council condemns any attempt by the government or any actor in the government, Prime Minister or otherwise, to influence the police to re-open any criminal investigation of any person or to cause the prosecution of any individual. For the avoidance of doubt, a member of government may refer a matter to the police, for example, suspicion of theft at a government ministry or theft of public funds, but then it is solely for the police to investigate and charge the appropriate person, without pressure or prompting from the government or actor in the government
- The DPP, when carrying out his public duties, is obligated to act independently of the government or any actor in the government. This is enshrined in section 88(5) of our Constitution which provides that, in the exercise of the powers vested in him, the DPP is not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority. The only exceptions (section 89) are in relation to any laws relating to official secrets, mutiny or incitement to mutiny, or an offence under any law relating to any right or obligation of Antigua and Barbuda under international law.
The Bar Council is acutely aware of the ease at which allegations of corruption can be made; without evidence; and the news and fanfare such allegations regularly attract. While we stand ready to support anyone who provides credible evidence of such corruption, and also support any police investigation into such evidence, we roundly condemn such allegations being used as political fodder. The integrity of our judicial officers should never be questioned without providing actual evidence of wrongdoing, as it is clear that such allegations reinforce the lack of confidence in the judicial system as a whole. Further, such allegations made without evidence are extremely difficult to defend against and makes restoring public trust in our judicial officers a near-impossible task. We would strongly urge all political actors, especially those holding public office, to refrain from attacking the judiciary, whether overtly or subtly. Our country cannot function properly without a strong, fair and independent legal system. Undermining trust in that legal system as part of the political back-and-forth, will only serve to hinder our progress as a nation.