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Brown: Land grabs are more than urban myth

One Bermuda Alliance MP Suzann Roberts-Holshouser last night broke ranks with the rest of her party and voted with the Opposition for an independent body to investigate Bermudians being swindled out of their property.

The motion, brought by Shadow Immigration Minister Walton Brown, will see a request made to Governor George Fergusson to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the validity of claims of the theft or dispossession of residents' property.

The Progressive Labour Party proposal also calls for this body to determine whether victims could claim compensation.

But the OBA sought to amend the motion to remove the references to any victims obtaining financial recompense because Bermuda would likely have to foot the bill and not, as suggested, the British Government.

Mr Brown maintained the British Government should pay for the investigation when he brought forth his motion in the House of Assembly yesterday.

“We have an opportunity here to help correct some of the wrongs of the bad old days, when justice was a fleeting illusion for many and the rich, powerful and connected acted with impunity,” Mr Brown said.

As well as citing “land grabs” such as the dispossession of Tucker's Town residents in the 1920s, the Progressive Labour Party MP said there had been a history of lawyers, realtors and politicians colluding to trick Bermudians, many of African descent, out of their legal claims to property.

“One could be forgiven for concluding that these claims were simply urban legends,” he added, pointing to the lack of successful adjudication on cases where landowners cried foul — such as Southampton resident John Darrell, who struggled unsuccessfully to prove his claim.

Saying he had heard many stories with “a scent of credibility”, Mr Brown said the issue demanded close, independent scrutiny by a body with no links to the legal, banking or real estate community.

In response to Attorney General Trevor Moniz, who asked who would finance the exercise, Mr Brown told the House: “The fact of the matter is that this issue can be underwritten by the UK Government.”

Mr Moniz said that while he did not intend to diminish the hardship of property owners in Tucker's Town, there was little point in looking into large, compulsory purchases of land that occurred in the past.

As for individual cases where people felt they had been taken advantage of, Mr Moniz said the best recourse was through the courts, rather than having a commission examine them.

PLP MP Walter Roban responded that the courts “haven't always been honourable or just — that's something that should be accepted”.

Pointing out that legislators recently tackled the issue of “fronting” in property purchases, Mr Roban added: “This isn't just about things which happened in the past.”

Ms Roberts-Holshouser and fellow OBA MP Craig Cannonier both spoke on the issue of St David's residents who were ordered to move for the construction of the airport.

Ms Roberts-Holshouser, Deputy Speaker of the House, said their sacrifice should be commemorated with a plaque, while Mr Cannonier praised the PLP motion — but said he was not sure whether the issue warranted a request for the Governor to establish a Commission of Inquiry.

Opposition MP Zane DeSilva blasted the notion that the courts were the best recourse.

“Pastor Leroy Bean lost the lease for White's Island just recently — you know why he couldn't fight it in court? He didn't have the money.”

He suggested Government send out a letter to all residents, urging them to come forward with cases of foul play — and said a Bermudian lawyer should be hired to look into each claim.

Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance Bob Richards then moved that the motion be amended to remove the references to victims obtaining compensation, but supported the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry.

“Let people understand why this amendment has come forward. Compensation means money. The probability of [the UK government paying this] is so close to zero it may as well be zero,” he said.

Richards said Government was very sympathetic to victims, but was not “going to potentially commit the public purse”.

Mr Brown hit back: “If the Government wishes to express sympathy to those who've been victims then they should know the victims and their descendants are looking for more than sympathy, they want justice.

“The Deputy Premier dismisses the notion that the UK Government could be persuaded to have some liability. Why not approach the Governor to approach his boss to take responsibility?”

Mr DeSilva, Shadow Tourism Minister, also criticised the amendment and said it should be withdrawn.

Glenn Blakeney, Shadow Minister of Environment and Infrastructure, said there was no need for an amendment.

Other PLP MPs to back the passing of the original motion included Kim Wilson, Shadow Minister of Health; Lawrence Scott, Shadow Transport Minister; Wayne Furbert, Shadow Minister of Economic Development, and Deputy Opposition leader Derrick Burgess.

Opposition leader Marc Bean said this House session and discussion “will go down as a day of infamy”.

“When Mr Brown presented this motion to me I didn't have to think more than five seconds to know this was one of the more important motions to be debated in these chambers for decades.

“We shouldn't have been surprised by the reaction of the members opposite.

“Why are they bringing this amendment? I'll wager that when persons like the bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, when they — the OBA base — were aware of the motion, the phones have been ringing with instructions, ‘don't you dare allow this motion to be debated'.”

Mr Richards responded to the criticism of his amendment by asking why the motion was not brought before the House by the PLP when they were in power.

Righting a wrong: Yesterday's motion was focused on the residents who lost their land in the past, including those forced to sell for the construction of what is now LF Wade International Airport

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Published July 05, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated July 06, 2014 at 5:02 pm)

Brown: Land grabs are more than urban myth

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