All suspects go free in vote-buying case

PHILIPSBURG–The Court of First Instance, on Wednesday, acquitted four suspects of bribery in the so-called “Masbangu” investigation concerning the selling and buying of votes on behalf of United People’s (UP) party in the September 17, 2010, Parliamentary election.

The Prosecutor’s Office had called for a three-month suspended prison sentence, on two years’ probation with 200 hours of community service, and deprivation of the right to vote or to be elected, for the alleged vote buyer, R.H. (63), who is the uncle of UP leader Theo Heyliger.

For officer of the Voluntary Corps of St. Maarten VKS member R.C.H.J. (65) and police officer A.R.W.M. (45) the Prosecutor’s Office had asked for suspended jail sentences of three months on two years’ probation, with 150 hours of community service and deprivation of the right to vote.

In the case of officer C.J.L.C. (47) the Prosecutor demanded three months suspended with 180 hours of community service, and deprivation of the right to vote. All officers were charged with selling their votes to the UP.

However, the Court of First Instance acquitted all suspects of (attempted) bribery. To consider bribery proven in this case it needed to be ascertained whether an agreement was made between sellers and buyer on the way in which the sellers were to exercise their right to vote in the election.

The Judge did find it proven that money was paid out by R.H. to the officers. Each of them received an envelope containing US $300, with the apparent intention to influence their “voting behaviour.” However, it could not be ascertained, the Court stated, that payments were made for a “reciprocal service,” namely a vote for a certain party, or that attempts were made to reach such an agreement.

All attorneys for the defence had pointed out that the distribution of “paraphernalia” and goods and services to people during election time was part of Caribbean culture, and pleaded for their clients’ acquittals. The Court accepted lawyers’ statements that this habit of influencing voters was “common practice” in St. Maarten.

“It can be argued that this practice is highly undesirable and seriously undermines democracy,” the Judge stated, but this did not automatically mean that the charges against suspects could be legally and convincingly proven. All suspects emphatically denied any agreement or that any conditions were attached to the payments.

During the hearing of this case it was stated that many voters turn to political parties during election time for money or goods without “selling” their vote in return. The case files also did not contain any evidence that suspects had made any promises or had been obligated to cast their vote for UP or for any other party, the Court states.

All of this, and the fact that it could not be ascertained whether the suspects were eligible voters, led the Court to the conclusion that (attempted) bribery could not be proven.
The Prosecutor’s Office has two weeks’ time to appeal the verdicts. In August 2014, the Court of First Instance declared the Prosecutor’s Office’s cases against the four suspects inadmissible, because Prosecutors had failed to also investigate the roles of UP and its party leadership in the scheme.

The Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal against the verdict and the Joint Court of Justice quashed the ruling of the Court of First Instance on May 5, 2015, and referred the Masbangu investigation back to the lesser court for retrial.

Subsequently, the suspects filed a final appeal against the Appeals Court’s decision at the High Court in The Hague. However, as the suspects had failed to submit the grounds for their appeal to the High Court, despite several reminders, the highest Court in the Netherlands declared all suspects’ appeals inadmissible on March 15. This meant the cases against all four suspects had to be heard anew by the Court of First Instance.

A preliminary hearing in another vote-buying case, allegedly committed during the 2014 Parliamentary election, is scheduled to take place in the Court of First Instance on Wednesday, September 21. The so-called “Octopus” investigation allegedly involves Member of Parliament Silvio Matser and four other suspects.
Source: Daily Herald
All suspects go free in vote-buying case