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No access to pepper-spray inquiry

Controversial day: a woman wipes her eyes after being among those protesters who were pepper-sprayed by police on December 2, 2016 after they blocked access to the Sessions House grounds during a scheduled sitting of the House of Assembly (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A Joint Select Committee set up to investigate why protesters were pepper-sprayed by police outside Parliament in December 2016 has held all of its meetings in secret.

The Royal Gazette can reveal that the bipartisan parliamentary group, which promised to carry out its work with “fairness, transparency and sensitivity”, has held 40 sessions in the past year, none of them open to the public or media.

A public access to information request for transcripts of hearings and minutes of meetings of the committee was rejected on the basis they were “in camera deliberations” and could not be disclosed because of parliamentary privilege.

The JSC, headed by Kim Swan, a Progressive Labour Party MP, pledged to table its findings in the House of Assembly three to six months after it was formed in January last year but has yet to do so.

Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House, gave the committee another three-month extension on Friday to complete its work.

Mr Swan would not answer questions about the committee in a phone interview on Thursday. The clerk to the committee later wrote in an e-mail: “Mr Swan ... asked me to advise that the committee will be reporting soon and thus it will not comment until that time.”

Mr Lister did not respond to a telephone message or e-mail.

David Burt, the Premier, said the PLP, on being elected to power in July 2017, was given the opportunity to “seek the facts and to obtain justice for those Bermudians that were victimised in such a brutal manner” on December 2, 2016, when protesters and police clashed during a demonstration in Hamilton about the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of the airport.

Mr Burt added: “As we seek justice and the truth around what and who instigated the horrific action taken against peaceful protesters, we must also adhere to the rule of law governing how such matters are handled.”

The Premier said: “The work of a joint select committee is a matter for the chairman, its members and the Speaker, who have roles in the regulation of the committee’s procedure.

“The standing orders of the House of Assembly direct that the sittings shall be private. It is not for the Premier to comment on the same.”

Standing order 38 (8) of the House of Assembly rules that “subject to any order of the House or resolution of the committee, the sittings of a select committee shall be private”.

But JSCs can hold public hearings and they have done so in the past.

At least two JSCs convened during the PLP’s last term of office, one on the public education system and one on gang violence, held open meetings, which the public could attend and which the media reported.

Mr Burt did not respond to a further question on whether he believed the events of December 2, 2016 were of significant enough public interest to warrant public hearings of the JSC.

Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, said: “There would have been merit in holding at least some of the committee meetings on an issue of such public importance in public.

“This involved both parties — the OBA was in government at the time and PLP MPs were heavily involved in the protest, as were the unions.

“It is up to the committee chair to decide, but I think the public should have had at least some opportunity to view the committee’s work.”

Andrew Simons, a former One Bermuda Alliance senator who briefly sat on the seven-member committee before he was replaced in the Upper Chamber in June last year, said he was unsure why the meetings were held in secret.

He added: “In general, committees of Parliament should meet in public.”

Mr Simons said joint select committees tackled important topics and should conduct their business in public “unless there is a compelling reason not to and those committees should be able to explain what those reasons are”.

Michael Dunkley, who was premier when the protest took place, said he gave evidence to the committee late last year.

Mr Dunkley has been accused several times by the PLP of directing the actions of the police outside Parliament, allegations that he and then Commissioner of Police Michael DeSilva denied. Mr Dunkley and Commissioner of Police Stephen Corbishley, who replaced Mr DeSilva last year, declined to comment on whether they believed the hearing should have been held in public.

Mr Corbishley said the Bermuda Police Service supported the remit of the JSC, had provided evidence to the committee and awaited “the final report in its entirety”.

Mr Swan tabled a motion in the House in late 2017 that called for the committee to be formed to look into “the events generally, including the decision-making and any directives of the executive and the then Speaker of the House [Randy Horton] given to the police”.

He and other MPs said there was a need to “get to the bottom” of why police officers wore riot gear and used incapacitant pepper spray on protesters who blocked access to Parliament.

Waynes Caines, the national security minister, said: “In order for any healing process to take place, there must be an opportunity for this country to look at this event and ... delve into the facts to deal with it in order to move on; almost like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

“As jaded, as disgusting, as heinous as the past was, they had to look at that and categorically and systematically work through the challenges.”

An official notice published on March 23, 2018 included a commitment for each member of the JSC to “carry out all facets of its operation, including but not limited to research, investigations and deliberations, with fairness, transparency and sensitivity”.

The Royal Gazette’s Pati request for all records held by the House of Assembly concerning the committee resulted in the release of only two documents — a list of dates and times for the 40 meetings and a list of existing members.

These are Mr Swan, Senate president Joan Dillas-Wright, PLP members Neville Tyrrell, Tinée Furbert and Scott Simmons, and OBA members Ben Smith and Marcus Jones.

The information officer for the House of Assembly said the other records were exempt from Pati.

To view the response to the Pati request, click on the PDF link under “Related Media”