Belize is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. In the most recent national election, held on November 11, the People’s United Party won 26 of 31 seats in the National Assembly. Party leader John Briceno was sworn in as prime minister on November 12.
The Ministry of National Security is responsible for oversight of police, prisons, the coast guard, and the military. The Belize Police Department is primarily responsible for internal security. The small military force primarily focuses on external security but also provides limited domestic security support to civilian authorities and has limited powers of arrest that are executed by the Belize Defence Force for land and shoreline areas and by the Coast Guard for coastal and maritime areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed few abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: allegations of the use of excessive force and inhuman treatment by security officers, allegations of widespread corruption and impunity by government officials, trafficking in persons, and child labor.
In some cases the government took steps to prosecute public officials who committed abuses, both administratively and through the courts, but there were few successful prosecutions.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There was a report that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
A team from the branch of the security force responsible for a killing or other abuse investigates the allegation and then presents the findings, recommendations, and penalties to authorities.
In April, Ulysease Roca died after he was beaten by a police officer while in police custody. Police detained Roca for breaking the COVID-19 curfew regulation. In a video recorded and published by Roca, he alleged that while he was in custody, police harassed and bullied him because of his sexuality and hit him in the face. Roca’s family believed the injury to his face developed an infection, and after being released, when he tried to obtain medical help, he was refused by the public health facility and subsequently died. The commissioner of police called for an investigation on the allegations of brutality, abuse of authority, and expression of homophobia by police. According to United Belize Advocacy Movement (UniBAM), the cause of Roca’s death was inconclusive, but the commissioner of police stated the cause of death was a result of HIV and AIDS complications. The Belize Police Department (BPD) internally disciplined the police officer who recorded and published video of the abuse by charging him for “an act of prejudice to good order and discipline.”
As of October the inquiry into the death of Allyson Major Junior had not progressed, and his family filed a civil suit against the attorney general and commissioner of police for his wrongful death. In 2019 a police officer shot and killed Major after suspecting he had purchased illegal drugs (marijuana). Corporal Kent Martinez was charged with manslaughter for the incident, and BPD officials announced they would investigate.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution prohibits torture or other inhuman punishment, but there were reports that police used excessive force as well as allegations of abuse by security force personnel. During the first half of the year, 55 percent of the complaints received by the Office of the Ombudsman were filed against the BDP for abuse of power, harassment, brutality, arbitrary search and entry, and unlawful imprisonment. The human rights ombudsman also received complaints against the Belize Central Prison for allegations of inhuman treatment, refusal to provide information to family, denial of the right to communicate, and denial of proper medical care of inmates. The Office of the Ombudsman noted that while the central prison authorities were more forthcoming to responses of allegations than in the past, the responses were mostly vague and failed to address the concerns raised.
In January a man claimed that police officers scalded him with hot water and pulled out his hair when he was picked up to be questioned about a stolen cell phone. There was no response on the part of the BPD. In April, three police officers were criminally charged for “willful oppression” after forcing a man and a woman with mental disabilities into a sexual act, recording the incident, and releasing it to the public. The three officers additionally faced internal discipline for “an act of prejudice to good order and discipline.” As of November the cases remained before the court and BPD’s Disciplinary Tribunal.
Impunity did not appear to be a significant problem in the security forces. Aggrieved persons may make a formal report to the BPD Professional Standard Branch, Belize Defence Force Adjutant Office, Belize Coast Guard Adjutant Office, or the Office of the Ombudsman. A team from the respective security forces investigates the allegations and then presents the findings, recommendations, and penalties to the commissioner of police, brigadier general, or commandant of the coast guard for action to be taken. Investigations may last from 30 days to six months.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
There continued to be reports of harsh conditions in the Belize Central Prison and police detention center due to inadequate sanitation procedures.
Physical Conditions: The Kolbe Foundation, a local Christian nonprofit organization, administered the country’s only prison, which held men, women, and juveniles. The government retained oversight and monitoring responsibility and provided funding. The human rights ombudsman stated resources were insufficient to meet what he called “minimal standards.” The prison continued to hold all prisoners convicted of crimes, despite overcrowded conditions.
In 2019 the Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRCB) inspected two detention cells in Belize City. The BPD’s intervention improved standards; however, the HRCB noted that conditions of detention centers in other parts of the country remained below standards. The HRCB reported the BPD had in some cases refused to allow access for HRCB inspectors to carry out inspections. There were no inspections after November 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even when the HRCB sought permission.
In January the Supreme Court found that negligence on the part of prison officials led to a male inmate being raped by another male inmate on two occasions in 2017. The court ordered the prison and the government to pay the victim’s court costs plus recovery of damages caused to him as a result of the incident.
Prisoners in pretrial detention and held for immigration offenses continued to be held with convicted prisoners. Officials used isolation in a small, poorly ventilated punishment cell to discipline inmates. The HRCB raised concerns that a number of immigration offenders who had completed their prison sentence remained imprisoned. Prison authorities responded that due to the closure of the borders as part of the COVID-19 mitigation measures, these individuals could not be repatriated.
Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.
Independent Monitoring: The prison administrator generally permitted visits from independent human rights observers. The HRCB donated a computer to the Belize Central Prison to facilitate communication with its clients in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
While the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, there were several allegations made through media and to the Police Standards Branch that the government failed to observe these requirements.
On March 18, the government instituted a 30-day state of emergency (SoE) in Belize City in response to an increase in criminal gang activity. The measure allowed the BPD and Belize Defence Force to target criminal gang elements through house raids, arrests, and imprisonment. A second SoE was instituted on July 6 and later extended to October 6. By the time the SoE expired in October, 110 persons were detained in prison awaiting trial. During the SoE there were reports that law enforcement agents used excessive force on citizens, damaged property, and unjustly targeted law-abiding citizens. Attorney Michelle Trapp requested the court initiate a judicial review questioning the failure of the government in setting up a tribunal to review the cases as required by law.
During the November 11 national elections, the government imposed a 9 p.m. curfew to limit potential exposure to COVID through the typical celebration marches by party enthusiasts. There were no reports of police using excessive force to maintain order, and persons generally followed the curfew orders throughout the country.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Police must obtain search or arrest warrants issued by a magistrate, except in cases of hot pursuit, when there is probable cause, or when the presence of a firearm is suspected. Police must inform detainees of their rights at the time of arrest and of the cause of their detention within 24 hours of arrest. Police must also bring a detainee before a magistrate to be charged officially within 48 hours. The BPD faced allegations that its members arbitrarily detained persons for more than 24 hours without charge, did not take detainees directly to a police station, and used detention as a means of intimidation.
The law requires police to follow the Judges’ Rules, a code of conduct governing police interaction with arrested persons. Although judges sometimes dismissed cases that involved violations of these rules, they more commonly deemed confessions obtained through violation of the rules to be invalid. Police usually granted detainees timely access to family members and lawyers, although there were reports of persons held in police detention without the right to contact family or seek legal advice.
By law a police officer in charge of a station or a magistrate’s court may grant bail to persons charged with minor offenses. The Supreme Court may grant bail to those charged with more serious crimes, including murder, gang activity, possession of an unlicensed firearm, and specific drug-trafficking or sexual offenses. The Supreme Court reviews the bail application within 10 working days.
Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution bars arbitrary arrest, and the law specifies protections enabling the constitutional ban. According to the Professional Standards Branch, no formal report was made of officers making unlawful arrests, detentions, or searches. Three persons, however, filed complaints of arbitrary arrest and one person of unlawful detention through the Office of the Ombudsman. The cases were under investigation.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy trial backlogs remained at the end of the year, particularly for serious crimes such as murder. Problems included police delays in completing investigations, lack of evidence collection, court delays in preparing depositions, and adjournments in the courts. The advent of COVID-19 led to a closure of the court system for all cases for more than two months, increasing the case backlog. Judges were typically slow to issue rulings, in some cases taking a year or longer. The time lag between arrest, trial, and conviction generally ranged from six months to four years. Pretrial detention for persons accused of murder averaged three to four years. As of September, 407 persons, representing 30 percent of the prison population, were being held in pretrial detention, a reduction from the previous year.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.
Due to substantial delays and a backlog of cases in the justice system, the courts did not bring some minors to trial until they reached age 18. In such cases the defendants were tried as minors.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although delays in holding trials occurred.
The law stipulates that nonjury trials are mandatory in cases involving charges of murder, attempted murder, abetment of murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. Government officials stated the law protects jurors from retribution. A single Supreme Court judge hears these cases. A magistrate generally issues decisions and judgments for lesser crimes after deliberating on the arguments presented by the prosecution and defense.
Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence, and standard procedure is for the defendant to be informed promptly of the charges against them and for them to be allowed to be present at the trial. If the defendants are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or if there are language barriers, they are informed of the reason of arrest at the earliest possible opportunity. Defendants have the right to defense by counsel and appeal, but the prosecution may apply for the trial to proceed if a defendant skips bail or does not appear in court.
There is no requirement for defendants to have legal representation except in cases involving murder. The Supreme Court’s registrar is responsible for appointing an attorney to act on behalf of indigent defendants charged with murder. In lesser cases the court does not provide defendants an attorney, and defendants sometimes represent themselves. The Legal Advice and Services Center, staffed by three attorneys, can provide legal services and representation for a range of civil and criminal cases, including domestic violence and other criminal cases up to and including attempted murder. These legal aid services were overstretched and could not reach rural areas or districts. Defendants are entitled to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense or request an adjournment, a common delay tactic. The court provides Spanish interpreters for defendants upon request. Defendants may not be compelled to testify against themselves or confess guilt.
The law allows defendants to confront and question witnesses against them and present witnesses on their behalf. Witnesses may submit written statements into evidence in place of court appearances. Defendants have the right to produce evidence in their defense and examine evidence held by the opposing party or the court.
The rate of acquittals and cases withdrawn by the prosecution due to insufficient evidence continued to be high, particularly for sexual offenses, murder, and gang-related cases. These actions were often due to the failure of witnesses to testify because of fear for life and personal safety, as well as a lack of basic police investigative or forensic capability in the country.
Weaknesses of the country’s justice system arise largely from lack of resources, lack of trained personnel including judges, prosecutors, and legal staff, an overburdened court docket that prioritizes murder cases, and an overburdened prison system with no capacity to accept new prisoners.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts, including the Supreme Court. Litigants may appeal cases to the Caribbean Court of Justice, the region’s highest appellate court. Individuals may also present petitions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, appointed by the government, acts as an independent check on governmental abuses. The Office of the Ombudsman holds a range of procedural and investigative powers, including the right to enter any premise to gather documentation and the right to summon persons. The office operated under significant staffing and financial constraints. The law requires the ombudsman to submit annual reports. The office does not have the power to investigate allegations against the judiciary. While the Office of the Ombudsman has wide investigative powers, it lacks effective enforcement authority; noncompliance by the offices being investigated severely limited its effectiveness.
The HRCB, an independent, volunteer-based NGO, continued to operate, although due to inadequate staffing and other factors, its work was limited. The commission provided human rights training for police recruits, prison officers, and the BDF. The commission collaborated with UNHCR to offer legal advice and aid to refugees and persons with irregular immigration status.
The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Council continued to address issues of trafficking. The council’s chairman, Ministry of Human Development CEO Judith Alpuche, also served as the government’s focal point for counter-COVID efforts, limiting the council’s effectiveness in addressing issues of trafficking.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law does not prohibit discrimination specifically against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, or access to government services such as health care, but the constitution provides for the protection of all citizens from any type of discrimination.
The Immigration Act prohibits “homosexual” persons from entering the country, but immigration authorities did not enforce the law.
In December 2019 the Court of Appeal upheld the 2016 ruling of the Supreme Court that overturned a section of the criminal code decriminalizing consensual same-sex relations between adults. The government made the appeal after pressure from the churches that disagreed with the court’s interpretation of sex. As of October the government had declined to appeal the case to the Caribbean Court of Justice–the highest appellate court in the region–nor had the Council of Churches publicly called for such an appeal.
The extent of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity was difficult to ascertain due to a lack of official reporting. UniBAM stated that discrimination and assault based on these factors continued to be substantially underreported, and its director noted that in communities with strong religious affiliation, police officers often refused to take reports from victims of discrimination. According to UniBAM, LGBTI persons continued to be denied medical services and education and encountered family-based violence.
According to a study conducted by Our Circle, a local LGBTI rights advocacy group, 13 percent of respondents felt unsafe in their homes because of their sexuality, 70 percent of whom lived in the Stann Creek District. A survey conducted by Rights Insight found that 34 percent of respondents believed LGBTI persons were treated unfairly, compared to other groups.