Is Island Justice Blind or Does it Just Want Us to Be?
As we send this issue to publish on Issuu.com, Honduras has just finished celebrating the string of patriotic holidays known as Fiestas Patrias. September 15 marked the 192nd anniversary of Central America’s declaration of independence from Spain. September 28 commemorated the arrival of the declaration in Comayagua, then the Honduran capital. October 3 is the birthday of Honduran national hero Francisco Morazán, who dedicated his life to democracy and Central American unity.
This year there were the usual parades down Main Street and celebrations throughout the islands. But the occasion also appears to have given our native islander columnists more than usual cause to think about the significance of “freedom” and “independence” from the perspective of the Bay Islands.
A year ago in this space, we asked rhetorically when Hondurans, having just celebrated their independence from Spain in the 19th century, would demand independence from the criminals and thugs terrorizing them in the 21st. This month Alfonso Ebanks writes about the spread of violent extortion by criminal gangs on the mainland, implying the question is if anything even more relevant a year later.
Our newest columnist, Catherine Flowers, questions whether Hondurans in general and Bay Islanders in particular can really consider themselves free and independent when the majority live in poverty and elected leaders are beholden to people other than the voters.
This month’s interview subject, Alvin Jackson, during a rambling aside we did not publish, suggested that what Hondurans had to show for 192 years of independence was “an electoral dictatorship” in which politicians promise anything to get elected then do as they please, unaccountably.
It was George Crimmin, though, who struck the chord that hit closest to home in light of recent experience. Refering to the local criminal justice system, he writes, “Everything is done behind closed doors. Democracy dies behind closed doors.”
As George penned those words, the Voice was in the midst of a battle with judicial authorities on Roatan to obtain routine access to information from criminal case files, which based on our reading of the law and advice from attorneys, is supposed to be open to review by the general public, as it is in other democratic countries. After we were repeatedly denied access over a period of months to information we had previously been allowed to see, we filed a complaint with the local office of the National Human Rights Commission August 8.
About a week later we received a phone call from the representative of the commission who had received the complaint. She read to us a response from the coordinator of Roatan’s judges. In laymen’s terms, the response essentially boiled down to: “Get stuffed.”
We cannot quote verbatim from the judge’s reply or other materials in the human rights commission’s file, because when we returned to request copies of the documents, we were told we could not have them. Such information is “strictly reserved,” we were informed. That’s right. We are not allowed to have information about why we are not allowed to have information. Franz Kafka’s The Trial came to mind, in which defendant Josef K is not allowed to know what crime he has been accused of. But Kafka’s novel was an existentialist farse. This was reality.
From what we could gather from the oral briefings we were given on the contents of the file, however, it seems the judges here consider their rulings on criminal matters to be of concern only to “the parties to the case and their attorneys.” Funny, I was always led to believe that criminal cases (as opposed to private civil disputes) were brought by public prosecutors in the name of the people. At least that’s what the Honduran Constitution implies. I’m one of the people, so I am a party to the case.
But, then, I was also informed that the judges dislike it when the media associate their names with their decisions, because the people are too “uneducated” in their view to understand that they (the judges) are merely acting in their “institutional capacities,” not as individuals. Again, this struck me as odd, since the very word “judge” implies that a person has been elevated to the position to exercise wise and appropriate “judgment” in applying and interpreting the law in specific cases. They’re not supposed to just be bureaucratic drones. They’re supposed to judge.
Lastly, I was told that my complaint lacked standing, because I had not filed my request for the information in question in writing as required by the Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information, of which the human rights office graciously gave me a copy. I read it, however, and discovered that the little slip of paper I filled out at the courthouse every time I requested a file fulfilled every requirement in the law and its regulations. Furthermore, the law states I must be given a reason within 10 days for being refused the information, and “because the judges said so,” which is what the court clerks said to me each time I was refused, is not a valid reason under the law for denying access to information.
Our judicial authorities on the islands can call this what they want. But it is not democracy. It is not the mark of a free society. I seriously doubt it is what those who struggled for Honduran independence had in mind. It has far more in common with the system of 17th century Spain, where judges acted not in the name of the people but of a hereditary Monarch who ruled by Divine Right.
Bay Islanders have a right to expect better than this.