PHILIPSBURG–The Prosecutor’s Office called for suspended sentences, with community service and the withdrawal of voting rights against four suspects Wednesday during the retrial in the so-called Masbangu investigation. The case involves the buying and selling of votes on behalf of United People’s (UP) party during the first election in Country St. Maarten on September 17, 2010.
In this case two (former) Officers of the then-Police Force of St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba, and one member of the Voluntary Corps of St. Maarten, are all suspected of having sold their votes.
The Prosecutor’s Office suspects R.H., the uncle of UP party leader Theo Heyliger, of buying the votes and/or having mediated in the sale on behalf of UP.
The case against a third police officer, receptionist Glinda P. Webster, was thrown out because she had passed away on June 13, 2014, after an illness at the age of 50.
In August 2014, the Court of First Instance declared the Prosecutor’s Office’s cases against the remaining 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. Also on retrial, the Prosecutor’s Office considered it proven that Police Officers A.R.W.M. (45) and C.J.L.C. (47), and VKS member R.C.H.J. (65) had sold their votes in exchange for money and that UP representative R.H. (62) had offered money in exchange for their votes.
The Prosecutor’s Office considered all suspects guilty as charged and requested suspended prison sentences of three months, with two years’ probation. Prosecutor Maarten Noordzij also requested 150 to 200 hours of community service, and that the Court takes away the suspects’ rights to vote. In addition, the Prosecutor asked that party representative R.H. be deprived of his right to be elected.
All suspects largely referred to their attorneys in answering questions posed to them by the Judge and said they maintained their statements given to the Police during the earlier stages of the investigation.
Money for votes
The case is based mainly on Webster’s report given to the Police Department of Internal Affairs in which she stated she had overheard a conversation between Officers M., C. and J. on September 15, 2010, in which it was said that UP was handing out money in exchange of votes.
At UP headquarters they asked to see Theo Heyliger and Al Wathey, but met with H. instead. They requested sums of US $300 to $700 in financial aid, stating they could not pay their bills for rent, electricity and school supplies.
J. allegedly received a phone call from H. on September 16, 2010, during which he was told to stop by the UP office. On his return, J. allegedly told Webster they had not received anything. Webster told the Police she found that hard to believe.
She met H. in Cay Hill on Election Day, September 17, 2010. Asked about the money, H. allegedly told her he had given J. four envelopes with money.
When she met with Ludwig Ouenniche at John Larmonie Centre, he allegedly confirmed to Webster that H. had given money to J.
Ouenniche told the Police at the time he was no UP member, but had assisted the party in its promotion campaign. “It is no secret that during election time people sell their votes for money, building blocks, a fridge or whatever,” he had told detectives.
Confronted with this information, J. kept denying he had received any money, on which Webster decided to file an official complaint with Police Commissioner Carl John.
During the ensuing investigation by National Detectives, J. confirmed the visit to the UP office and the conversation with H., and said he had received three envelopes for M., C. and himself. He said he had received $300. C. and M. both denied they had ever received an envelope.
The suspects were required to submit copies of their passports to ascertain whether they were registered with the Civil Registry and eligible to vote, it was said.
H. denied he had been involved in vote-buying. The retired marina owner said previously he only had been in charge of the distribution of T-shirts, caps, flags and other promotional articles. He said Wednesday he is not involved with the UP campaign for the September 2016 election.
The retired marina owner initially told the Police that he knew J. from a resort where they both had been employed previously. “He came for promotional gimmicks and did not come for money, to my knowledge,” H. initially told the Police. Later, he admitted he had given J. envelopes with money. “I took it out of my own pocket and didn’t tell anybody,” he said.
Free and fair elections
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, H. had tried to persuade and convince the suspects to vote for UP. Prosecutor Noordzij qualified the alleged crimes, described as “vote buying” as a serious infraction on the proper conduct of the September 2010 election for the first Parliament of Country St. Maarten.
He held it against the three Police officials that they had violated the good name and integrity of the Force and their exemplary role in society and had endangered free and fair elections. The case caused a lot of commotion in the media, at home and abroad, and had considerably damaged St. Maarten’s image, Noordzij added.
The Prosecutor said that vote buying is punishable under Article 2.44 of the Penal Code of St. Maarten, and previously also under Article 132 of the Penal Code of the former Netherlands Antilles, and that recently the penalization has been increased to imprisonment of two years. Solely because of the lengthy duration of the Masbangu investigation the Prosecutor’s Office decided to deviate and request fully suspended jail sentences.
The Prosecutor said that to prove bribery it is sufficient that parties agree on not to vote or to cast a vote in a specific way in accepting a gift or a promise. Both the person making the gift or promise as well as the one who accepts the offer are punishable by law. It does not legally matter that afterwards the gift or promise is not redeemed or that the actual vote has been cast differently than agreed, he added.
Two of the suspects told the Court that they had not cast their vote on UP, but on National Alliance leader William Marlin instead.
Several statements made in the investigation, including those by several defence lawyers, confirmed that it is common practice on St. Maarten that representatives of political parties give money or goods to voters in exchange for their vote.
“Therefore prosecuting this case also serves as a warning to the people of St. Maarten that selling or buying of votes is a punishable offence and that the Prosecutor’s Office will investigate and prosecute these cases,” the Prosecutor’s Office said.
Lawyers repeated their requests that the Judge declare the Prosecutor’s cases against their clients inadmissible because of undue delays. They pointed out that almost six years had elapsed since the alleged crimes were committed, whereas almost four years have passed since the first witnesses were heard in September 2012.
All attorneys 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.
Attorney Jairo Bloem said the evidence presented against his client J. was “very circumstantial” as he confirmed he had not voted for UP. He said this was a case of “political meddling” by the Prosecutor’s Office. “It is not forbidden for political parties to entice voters, but it is forbidden to close an agreement about such,” Bloem said.
Lawyer Cor Merx said the case against his client C. was exaggerated. You cannot even vote for UP, but merely on one of its candidates on the UP slate, Merx explained in stating that the “stories” about election fraud and bribery were, in fact, nothing more than “ballyhoo.” Merx also wanted to know for how long the voting ban would be imposed.
H.’s lawyer Eldon Sulvaran said the case was an example of “neo-colonial rumbling of the drums close to the 2016 election,” and an attempt to influence its outcome. He said the Dutch “village idiots” and Members of the Dutch Parliament’s Second Chamber André Bosman and Ronald van Raak had publicly tarnished Heyliger and the UP in connection with the alleged buying of votes.
“The ballot is secret and the freedom to vote is 100 per cent guaranteed in St. Maarten,” Sulvaran claimed. By contrast, the Dutch system of voting by proxy and by letter from abroad is much more prone to corruption than St. Maarten’s system, he said.
The Court will give its decision September 14.
Source: Daily Herald
Call for withdrawal of voting rights and suspended sentences in Masbangu retrial