Parliament approves stiff penalties for piracy
Stabroek News news item. Friday 4 July 2008
Amid waves of piracy that have beset fishermen all along the coast, the National Assembly yesterday passed the Hijacking and Piracy Bill which caters for life imprisonment and stiff fines.
The bill was passed without being sent to a select committee, as some members of the opposition had wanted.
The bill seeks to make special provisions for punishment for offences of armed robbery, hijacking and piracy committed in rivers, internal waters and territorial sea of Guyana and the high seas.
Piloting the bill, Minister of Home Affairs, Clement Rohee said that it was timely, necessary, and he believed, is awaited with great anticipation by the fishing community.
He said that what was lacking previously was a legislative framework for the joint services and in the absence of this, it became necessary to bring legislation to address the deficit in the security architecture to address piracy. He declared that the bill sends a strong signal to the affected communities that the administration was not prepared to sit by and not address piracy and hijacking.
The bill sets out provisions for the punishment of criminal acts committed in Guyana’s waters such as the death penalty to a person who murders another person on board a vessel under attack while committing armed robbery, piracy or hijacking. It deals with the punishment of accessories and provides for the forfeiture of buildings owned and used by an accused, any vessel, machinery and accessories and weapons used or intended to be used in the commission of an offence under the legislation. It also seeks to regulate the granting of bail, among other things. Rohee noted that an important feature of the bill was that it touches on the issue of jurisdiction.
First speaker on the Opposition side, Deborah Backer pointed out that there still exist sections under the Criminal Law (Offences) Act under which people were charged and could be charged and said that the bill was not going into uncharted waters. “Legislation is there as we speak and has been there for years”, she declared. She said that the PNCR agreed in principle to the bill but would have been happier to see a comprehensive overhaul of the Criminal Law (Offences) Act.
She argued about whether stiff penalties would lead to a reduction in offences declaring that what would lead to a reduction in piracy and crimes in general is good, preventative policing methods. She also raised the matter of manpower noting that remuneration is an issue. She reiterated that while the PNCR supported the bill in principle, the bill should go to a select committee. She was supported in her views by fellow PNCR Member of Parliament (MP), Clarissa Riehl.
Alliance for Change (AFC) MP, Khemraj Ramjattan pointing to the clause that places the burden of proof on an accused to prove that the property held by him or someone on his behalf is not the proceeds of any crime, said that it could be unconstitutional because of the presumption of innocence noting that the person was merely an accused and not convicted as yet. He stated that the person could have the property taken away because he could not prove how the property was acquired. He said that his party would support it to the extent of the concerns raised and the proposal for it to be sent to a select committee might be useful.
In closing, Rohee noted that the Guyana-Suriname border was a major challenge while another was the financial aspect to have a sustained presence on the seas. He said that he agreed that a comprehensive approach is needed asserting that “with this bill we made a start in the right direction”.
Clause Three of the bill says that any person who commits armed robbery is liable on indictable conviction to life imprisonment along with a fine of $1M. Clause Four says that every person who hijacks a vessel commits an offence and is liable on indictment to imprisonment for life together with a fine of $1M.
Clause Six says that every person who commits an act of piracy as defined by the act is liable on conviction on indictment to life imprisonment and a fine of not less than $200,000 and not more than $1M.
Further, Clause Seven says that every person who murders a person on board a vessel that is under attack is liable on conviction on indictment to suffer the death penalty. (Gaulbert Sutherland)