TDH – PHILIPSBURG–The Court of First Instance on Monday declared inadmissible the Prosecutor’s Office’s cases against five persons allegedly involved in selling and buying votes on behalf of United People’s (UP) party in the September 2010 election.
The Judge held it against the Prosecutor’s Office that it had decided to prosecute only five suspects, but had failed to investigate the roles of UP and its leadership in the scheme.
According to the Court, the Prosecutor’s Office had been in default. It had given the impression it was administering “class justice” in its decision to prosecute only the “vote sellers,” who had stated they had asked for money because they were in financial trouble.
In itself, the Judge considered it proven that suspects A.R.W.M. (43), C.J.L.C. (45) and R.C.H.J. (63) had sold their votes in exchange for money and that UP-representative R.H. (60) had offered money in exchange for their votes.
The case against a fifth suspect, G.P.W. (50), was thrown out because she had passed away on June 13.
During the August 4 hearing, the Prosecutor’s Office requested suspended prison sentences of three months, with two years’ probation, 150-200 hours of community service and that the Court take away suspects’ rights to vote. In addition, the Prosecutor requested that R.H. be deprived of his right to be elected.
The Judge decided not to impose any sentences, because this would be unfair and in violation of the legal principle that equal cases must be treated equally.
The Court was highly critical of the Prosecutor’s decision not to investigate the role of UP and its leadership.
The Judge agreed with the Prosecutor’s Office that this case, which had endangered free elections, had caused a lot of commotion in St. Maarten and throughout the kingdom. The case had been damaging to the island’s image.
Based on statements in the case file, the Prosecutor’s Office claimed it was “common” in St. Maarten for representatives of political parties to hand out money and goods in exchange for votes, which is punishable by law.
Selling and buying votes is against the law because these practices violate the principles of free and democratic elections. This specifically applied to the case of R.H., who had tried to influence the election results on behalf of UP, the Prosecutor’s Office had stated.
The Court agreed with the Prosecutor that election fraud is damaging to the foundation of the democratic state as laid down in the Constitution.
“Political parties that are prepared to buy votes favour themselves, as this enables them to delegate more candidates to Parliament. This would effectively mean that Parliament may no longer be considered the highest office within the democratic state of Country St. Maarten; the office which should be representing the people of St. Maarten,” the Judge said.
According to the Judge, the case file contained statements concerning R.H.’s party’s involvement in large-scale vote-buying. The Judge said people had been “standing in rows” in front of the building on Ground Dove Road in Pointe Blanche from which UP had been campaigning for the parliamentary election of September 17, 2010.
Among those obtaining money were the four suspects mentioned, all (former) officers of the then-Police Force of St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba and of Voluntary Corps of St. Maarten VKS.
The Judge said there were indications that UP had its own registration system in place for people requesting money to ensure they would indeed vote for this party.
Control and registration are in violation of free and secret ballots, the Judge said about the practice. “Without the willingness of a political party (leadership) to hand out money and goods in exchange for votes there cannot be election fraud,” he added.
However, the Prosecutor’s Office refrained from prosecuting UP and/or its leadership, which the Judge said was unfair, unjust and unequal treatment in comparison with the five suspects.
The Court specifically held it against the Prosecutor’s Office that the role of UP and its leadership in this case had not even been investigated, whereas the case file itself contained information warranting such an investigation.
The Judge pointed at a statement provided by R.H., who had stated that he was accountable to UP leader Theo Heyliger.
According to information obtained by the Criminal Intelligence Unit, Heyliger allegedly had deposited US $3 million into UP’s election fund out of his own pocket. There were also a number of statements indicating that UP had handed out money in Pointe Blanche.
The Prosecutor’s Office also held this to be true, as it specifically mentioned UP in the suspects’ indictments. In this light, the Judge said it was “incomprehensible” that the judicial authorities had not investigated the party’s role in the election fraud.
Statements made about the National Detectives’ lack of capacity were dismissed by the Court, because the state has to provide a well-equipped Detective Department.
Moreover, the Court said it should have been possible to launch a criminal investigation into the involvement of UP and its leadership in the relatively long period between September 2010 and February 2014, when this case was brought to Court.
The Judge concluded that declaring the Prosecutor’s Office’s cases against suspects inadmissible would serve the eradication of vote-buying and selling better than sentencing suspects four years after the crimes had been committed.