PHILIPSBURG–The Joint Court of Justice on Tuesday granted the Prosecutor’s Office authority to prosecute United Democrats leader Member of Parliament Theodore Heyliger in connection with the “Catfish” investigation. Heyliger is suspected of having committed bribery between 2012 and 2013. The date of the court hearing has not yet been determined.
The Prosecutor’s Office needed permission from the Joint Court to bring criminal charges against a sitting MP. Heyliger has never been arrested, but he was questioned by the National Detective Agency (Landsrecherche) officials behind closed doors on August 7, 2017, in connection with the criminal case “Catfish.”
According to the verdict by the three Joint Court judges on Tuesday, “The Joint Court is of the opinion that there is a “reasonable presumption of guilt.” The court did not consider the request to prosecute Heyliger to have been made lightly and it was not made based on political motives, the court stated.
“The Court does not consider any grounds derived from the public interest to refuse the requested order to prosecute. The order will therefore be given. The Court considers that, with regard to the other requests by the defence that have been filed, the request can be dealt with when the criminal case is called.”
Heyliger’s legal team had submitted two what it called preliminary defence arguments. One was that Heyliger had not been summoned according to the correct procedure under article 5 of the national ordinance for the prosecution of persons in political positions of authority. Therefore, the case could not have been dealt with in closed session.
The second argument was that the court session could not have been allowed to proceed via video and audio connection because there is no legal basis for this.
However, the court argued that what is important is that the suspect can exercise his right to be heard. That he was not directly informed about the date and place of the court session, but indirectly via his lawyer, was therefore rejected as a valid argument by the court.
As regards the second argument, the Joint Court noted that for financial and organisational reasons, it is not in a position to deal with closed-door sessions within a reasonable timeframe. It also noted that this is only a session behind closed doors where the question of guilt is only dealt with in a very limited way. The actual court session to deal with the case in depth will, of course, be held in Philipsburg, the Joint Court noted in rejecting the defence’s second argument as well.
The Catfish investigation started in March 2013 after former MP Romain Laville filed an official complaint of attempted bribery to “jump ship.” A number of witnesses have been interrogated and important documents analysed. Heyliger, then leader of United People’s Party, was interrogated for about five hours.
The Attorney General requested the permission to prosecute Heyliger on June 21 this year. The request had to do with what he called active bribery of officials as punishable in article 2: 128 of the Penal Code of St. Maarten (Article 183 of the Penal Code of the former Netherlands Antilles), committed in or around the period of September 1, 2012, to July 25, 2013, in St. Maarten.
Heyliger declined to comment about the court’s decision on Tuesday and said he will be discussing his case with his lawyers.
In a statement issued later on Tuesday, the board of the United Democrats expressed its support for Heyliger. “Today is a dark day for the UD party. The request by the prosecutor to investigate the UD leader was known for some time; however, that the request has now been granted for charges of bribery is astounding to say the least,” the UD stated in its press release.
“The manner in which cases, and high-profile cases in particular, are proceeding on St. Maarten continue to give rise for much concern and a keen eye will be kept on this process.
“In the meantime, we ask the country to remember that this day is also a dark day for St. Maarten. One in whom the people have put their trust time and time again to represent them, and who has given his all to do exactly that, is now faced with this distress.
“In the coming days, the UD will meet to chart the course forward for the times ahead, giving Theo and his family all the support we can. Regretful to conclude that Theo’s own words ‘guilty until proven innocent’ seem prophesied. “Much strength to our party leader and his family. We stand with you, Theo.”