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Chief Justice hears closing argument in Election Petition case

Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin heard closing arguments today in a case brought against the San Pedro Town Council by the People’s United Party. It is the first election petition filed in Belize’s history as the PUP is challenging the results of the March 7 municipal elections in San Pedro Town. Essentially, the PUP has asked the Chief Justice to declare the elections void because they believe that Mayor Guerrero and his UDP council were not duly elected. Senior Council Eamon Courtenay represented PUP’s San Pedro Mayoral Candidate, Abner Perez.

Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, Attorney for PUP:  “We highlighted for the Chief Justice what we regard as a number of major irregularities, violations of the law. The first is of course, the fact that the ballots and the papers relating to it were unsealed, first by Ms. Cumberbatch because as you know, she changed the numbers on all of these papers and then secondly by the Chief Elections Officer. We believe that the law is very clear, regulation 84 and regulation 89 prohibits and prescribes anyone from tampering with ballots and our election papers after the counting is completed and these were gross violations. Beyond that, the Chief Elections Officer was very clear that she and Mr. Zuniga counted the ballots when Ms. Cumberbatch handed them over to her and that nobody from the People’s United Party was present. That is an absolute flagrant violation of the law and what it does is that it undermines the integrity of the electoral process. My learned friends suggested to the court that, that type of violation is acceptable, that type of violation is minor, trivial and the court should tolerate it and saying that the people in Battlefield Park will live with that type of treatment of an election. Whereas we submitted that we in the People’s United Party do not accept that the Chief Elections Officer or anyone else for that matter should have access to the ballots and the papers after the election. We in the People’s United Party reject completely the notion that you can open the ballot papers and open the envelopes and take out the things, deal with them and tamper with them after we have left the counting room. That is in our view is a violation of the basic tenets of Belizean democracy and we are hoping that the Chief Justice accepts that those violations are significant, they’re substantial and are enough to void the election because at the end of the day they didn’t bring the ballots here to confirm to the court that all the ballots have been accounted for and I want to just make the point, I asked the Chief Elections Officer whether they were under an obligation to account for all the used and unused ballots and she said yes. They also confirmed that in order to do that an actual count would have to be performed. That was not done and we say it was their duty to have asked the court for that to be done.”

Representing the respondents is Attorney Estevan Perrera while the Solicitor General Nigel Hawke represented the Attorney General’s Office as an interested party. Both men agreed that it is the responsibility of the claimants to prove to the court that any discrepancy if any, impacted the results of the elections.

Estevan Perrera, Attorney for UDP: “Our position is simple, simply because the petitioner says that a fire exists doesn’t make that so. They have to prove it to the court, they have to show it to the court and they have to provide evidence of this. We are saying that they failed to provide any evidence clearly substantiating their position that a fire did in fact exists. We are saying that there was no irregularity, there were minor miscalculations in the forms like what we had informed you previously and we are saying that our position is that the law contemplates that there will be errors done by persons at the counting room because of the time that takes place, the amount of events or actions happening therein and it is expected that there will be some minor errors and that is why the law is very specific. It says that minor discrepancies or errors do not invalidate the actual elections, what the petitioners must show is that some act that has occurred would have substantially affected the results of the elections and we say none of that has been presented to the court and we believe that it’s quite obvious that that fire doesn’t exist. We are saying that anything could have transpired after the elections took place, the counting took place , the final reports being published in the gazette, anything that takes place after that cannot affect the outcome of an election. We are saying that any of the allegations that they are now presenting saying that something occurred after all this, we are saying that whatever it was even though we deny it that that could have not have affected the election results which took place on the night of the elections.”

Solicitor General Nigel Hawke: “Our submission is fundamentally based on the fact that they are challenging the results based on ballots that are unaccounted for when the evidence suggests by their own witnesses that all the used ballots have been accounted for. So we say there is a great paradox here? Why did they bring the petition if they accepted that the ballots used determines the results; but we have to wait for the judgment of the court.”

That judgment is expected to be handed down in two weeks.