Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
On September 5, off-duty Belize Defence Force (BDF) soldier Jessie Escobar was shot by a soldier in a joint police-BDF patrol that stopped a group of men outside a store. The shooter, BDF Private Raheem Valencio, was arrested and charged with murder. Police officer Juan Carlos Morales and another BDF soldier in the patrol, Ramon Alberto Alcoser, were both charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice by providing inaccurate statements to the investigators. Morales was also charged with aggravated assault on one of the men at the store. The commissioner of police noted Morales would face Belize Police Department (BPD) disciplinary charges for an “act of prejudice to good order and discipline” and “breach of department policy” for using force during the incident.
On the night of July 14, police corporal Kareem Martinez shot and killed 14-year-old Laddie Gillett while Gillet and a friend were fleeing from police officers. According to Gillett’s friend Thomas Palacio, he and Gillett ran because they believed the two men in dark clothing confronting them with guns intended to rob them. Palacio said the men had not identified themselves as police officers. Palacio claimed the officers beat him, and he feared he would be killed. Two days after the incident, Martinez was charged with manslaughter by negligence and granted bail while awaiting trial. A police investigation led to Martinez’s dismissal from the police force. Following the incident, Commissioner of Police Chester Williams said the shooting was not a justifiable use of force. The Belize Progressive Party condemned the “recurrent issues of brutality” by the police and “diminished charges assigned to officers involved … the scandalously low rate of successful prosecution of said officers, and the light sentences accorded to the few that would be found guilty.” The Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRCB), an independent, volunteer-based, nongovernmental organization (NGO), denounced the killing and stressed that “this kind of systematic abuse of authority by some police officers and their disregard of the humanity and dignity of Belizean citizens can no longer be countenanced.”
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 of abuse and use of excessive force by law enforcement agents. During the first half of the year, 25 percent of the complaints received by the Office of the Ombudsman were filed against police for abuse of power, harassment, and brutality. The ombudsman also received complaints against the central prison for allegations of inhuman treatment.
In January police constable Edgar Teul was charged for sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman who went to the Succotz police station to sign bail documents for the release of her common-law husband. The woman reported that while she waited to sign the bail documents, Teul sexually assaulted her three times. Teul was criminally charged and subsequently dismissed from the BPD following an internal investigation.
Through the end of August, the BPD Professional Standards Branch, the internal investigative unit of the police department, registered 105 complaints against members of the BPD and concluded 60 investigations with recommendations. Through June the BPD dismissed 14 officers after internal tribunals found them guilty of offenses which ranged from excessive absence to drug trafficking and abuse.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
There were reports of harsh conditions in the central prison and police detention center due to inadequate sanitation.
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.
In February amateur video showed inhuman treatment of prisoners by guards at the central prison. The video showed guards spraying pepper spray directly in the faces of handcuffed prisoners, guards forcing an inmate to ingest large quantities of water until the inmate vomited, and a paralyzed inmate suffering from bedsores. An anonymous letter directed to the HRCB listed other human rights violations at the prison, including inmates being fed stale or spoiled food. The chief executive officer of the prison, Virgillo Murrillo, told the press that the mistreatment featured in the video did not occur at the prison, and that the inmate with bedsores received treatment and assistance from an NGO. The HRCB categorized the incidents as “atrocious inhumane acts” and called on the minister of home affairs to appoint visiting justices to the central prison as mandated by law.
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.
Administration: Authorities investigated credible allegations of mistreatment. Relatives of inmates claimed that prison authorities were occasionally reluctant to provide information about family members in prison and did not allow direct communication with the imprisoned relative.
Independent Monitoring: The prison administrator generally permitted visits from independent human rights observers. Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the HRCB was unable to carry out inspections of police detention cells and the central prison. The HRCB, however, met with inmates who requested assistance and guidance with the legal process.
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 to media that the government sometimes failed to observe these requirements.
On August 19, the government instituted a 30-day state of emergency for a section of Belize City in response to an increase in criminal gang activity. The measure allowed the BPD and BDF to target criminal gangs through house raids, arrests, and imprisonment. Normal due process rights related to timely habeas corpus were suspended under the state of emergency.
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 at times police arbitrarily detained persons for more than 24 hours without charges, did not take detainees directly to a police station, and used detention as a means of intimidation.
Police usually granted detainees timely access to family members and lawyers, although there were reports of persons held in police detention without the opportunity 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.
In July the Supreme Court ruled the BPD cannot profile citizens and treat them as criminals without a clear cause for suspicion. The ruling followed a civil suit brought against the BPD by Greg Nunez and Bryton Codd, who claimed they were returning from a basketball practice when police officers stopped and searched them because of their appearance and took pictures of them and of their identification cards. These pictures were then sent to an informal police social media group in WhatsApp. The court stated the officers’ actions were arbitrary, oppressive, and unconstitutional. The claimants were jointly awarded 28,000 Belize dollars ($14,000). The practice by police of profiling persons, especially young black men, was used by the BPD for years. Following the ruling, the minister of home affairs and the commissioner of police announced that profiling would be discontinued.
In July, two police officers, Wilton Justin Montero and Jerome Ingram, were secretly videotaped while abusing an unarmed man who was in handcuffs and appeared unconscious. Both officers were criminally charged with harm, granted bail, and faced internal disciplinary penalties for their conduct. At the end of the year, the trial had not started.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law bars arbitrary arrest. According to the Professional Standards Branch, no formal report was made during the year of officers making unlawful arrests, detentions, or searches. The HRCB raised concerns that several immigration offenders remained imprisoned despite completing their prison sentence. In February, South African national Rupert Lulofs sued the government for illegally keeping him detained at the central prison beyond his sentence. Lulofs was detained in January 2020 for immigration offenses and was sentenced to seven days in prison. Prison authorities failed to release him until February 2021.
Pretrial Detention: There were lengthy trial backlogs, particularly for serious crimes such as murder. Problems included delays in police completing investigations, lack of evidence collection, court delays in preparing depositions, and adjournments in the courts. The COVID-19 pandemic closed the court system for all cases several times during the year, increasing the case backlog. Judges were typically slow to issue rulings, in some cases taking a year or longer. The time between arrest, trial, and conviction ranged from six months to four years. Pretrial detention for persons accused of murder averaged three to four years. In April the legislature approved the Time Limit for Judicial Decisions Act, which sets a time limit of no more than 120 days for judges to deliver judgments once the full hearing has concluded. The act includes provisions to remove a judge who consistently fails to provide written decisions and reasons for decisions within the time specified. In June the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal introduced an electronic program to facilitate the submission of legal documents and thus improve the efficiency of case management by the courts. As of September, 364 persons, representing 35 percent of the prison population, were being held in pretrial detention, an increase 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.
In July, Ramiro de la Rosa was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for the possession of an unlicensed firearm. De la Rosa, his wife, and two children were at home when police officers, without a court warrant, conducted a search of their residence and found the unlicensed firearm that belonged to his father-in-law, who had died a few days before, in the attic. To avoid his wife being charged, De la Rosa pled guilty to the offense, but instead of being granted bail per standard practice, he was immediately sentenced to prison. De la Rosa was not afforded adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense prior to sentencing. After applying for a stay of execution through an attorney, De la Rosa was released pending the outcome of his appeal.
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 trials by judge alone (without a jury) 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. Other serious crimes are heard by a Supreme Court judge with a jury. For lesser crimes, a magistrate generally issues decisions and judgments without a jury after deliberating on the arguments presented by the prosecution and defense.
Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence. The defendant has the right to be informed promptly of the charges against them and to be present at the trial. If 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 an attorney to defendants, 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 did not reach rural areas or districts. Defendants are entitled to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Defendants can request an adjournment. The court provides Spanish, Mandarin, or Hindi 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.
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, but there were reports that the government sometimes failed to respect these prohibitions (see section 1.e.).