PHILIPSBURG–Suspects R.H. (63) and R.C.H.J. (65) on Wednesday appeared in front of the judges of the Joint Court of Justice by video-conferencing for their hearing in the so-called “Masbangu” investigation involving the buying and selling of votes on behalf of the United People’s (UP) party during the September 17, 2010 election.
Similar as in the cases against their co-defendants A.R.W.M. and C.J.L.C., which were heard on Thursday, April 6, the Solicitor General also asked for conditional prison sentences of three months, on two years’ probation period, with 150 hours of community service, for R.M. and R.C.H.J.
R.H.’s case was postponed until Wednesday as he did not have sufficient time to confer with his lawyer Eldon Sulvaran to prepare his case. R.C.H.J. did not have a lawyer present at the time, but yesterday he was represented in Court by attorney Geert Hatzmann.
The Court of First Instance on September 14, 2016, acquitted all four suspects of all vote- buying charges against them. The Prosecutor’s Office had asked to sentence A.R.W.M. and R.C.J.H. to three months’ suspended, with 150 hours of community service and deprivation of the right to vote.
Right to vote
Contrary to the Prosecutor’s demand at the Court of First Instance, the Solicitor General refrained from calling for the deprivation of the defendants’ right to vote. He explained that the new Penal Code only provides for a punishment of this nature in connection with prison sentences of one year or more.
In the new Penal Code the maximum penalty for vote buying has been increased from six months to two years, but the Prosecutor’s Office did not demand a lengthy prison sentence.
The Prosecutor’s Office had filed for appeal as it disagreed with the acquittal of all (attempted) bribery charges. To consider bribery proven it needs 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 of the lesser court did find it proven that money was paid out by R.H. to the four Police 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 Judge 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. “What is missing is a handshake,” the Court of First Instance stated.
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 lesser court had accepted the lawyers’ statements that this habit of influencing voters was “common practice” in St. Maarten.
“You do not need more for a conviction,” the Solicitor General said Wednesday. “There is an offer and there is acceptance. It is all there,” he said. According to the Solicitor General no explicit agreement of vote buying was necessary to consider the case proven.
He also pointed to the statement of co-suspect V.W. who had told the Police: “I understood that the UP party was giving out money to people for them to vote for the UP party. This was spoken at the Police Station in Philipsburg. It was conversation between [suspects – Ed.] C.,M., and J.”
A witness told the Police that persons had to present their passport to the UP headquarters to see if they were registered on the island and if they were eligible to vote and how many members were in their family and if they were also able to vote.
The Solicitor General said that R.H., an uncle of UP leader Theo Heyliger, had sought to favourably influence the election results on behalf of UP.
R.C.H.J. had been in it for profit and had lost sight of the fact that his behaviour had tarnished the good name of the Police Force of St. Maarten to which he was affiliated as a member of the Volunteer Corps of St. Maarten VKS.
The two lawyers pleaded for their clients’ acquittal. In likening his client’s behaviour to a match-fixing scheme in a soccer match that went wrong, Hatzmann said R.C.H.J. had been in a “somewhat clandestine” operation for which he did not deserve a medal.
“My cash-strapped client went to the UP office to hold up his hand. He got paid, but not being a UP supporter he voted for leader of the National Alliance (NA) William Marlin instead. This shows that there apparently was no agreement,” the lawyer said.
According to Hatzmann, it is common practice that people come begging for money with political parties. “That is really not the same as handing out money in exchange for support. My client has been tipped money, but he has not been bribed. There was not even an attempt,” he said in calling on the Court of Appeals to confirm the acquittal.
Attorney Sulvaran pleaded with the Court to declare the Prosecutor’s case against his client inadmissible because the prosecution had allegedly influenced a witness for the defence.
He further pointed to the fact that the voting system in the Dutch Caribbean was much more free and safe than in the European Netherlands, where, he said, the abuse of voting by proxy is widespread.
Instead, “village idiots” such as Members of Parliament (MPs) André Bosman of conservative VVD and Ronald van Raak of Socialist Party (SP) aim their arrows at “corrupt” St. Maarten, Sulvaran said.
“Giving out refrigerators to poor residents is common practice on all Caribbean islands. This is a grey area. Providing aid to people is a phenomenon of all times and of all parties,” the lawyer said, who denied that this constituted vote buying, or any other criminal act.
Sulvaran said the case against R.H. was politically motivated. “This case will not make any difference in St. Maarten. People will keep going to political parties,” he said. The Court will give its decision in all four cases on May 3.
Source: The Daily Herald https://www.thedailyherald.sx/islands/65171-lawyers-plead-for-acquittal-in-masbangu-vote-buying-case