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Wall of silence over pepper spray inquiry

Parliamentarians who sit on a committee investigating how protesters came to be pepper sprayed by police in December 2016 have failed to explain why they have held all of their meetings in secret.

The Joint Select Committee has held 40 meetings, none of them open to the public or media, despite a pledge for members to carry out their work with “fairness, transparency and sensitivity”.

The Royal Gazette asked the seven members of the bipartisan committee to explain the decision to hold all sessions behind closed doors, but none would comment. 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.

It was given another three-month extension by Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House, on Friday.

Mr Swan said “scrutiny and accountability” was the “name of the game” when he first proposed forming the committee in December 2017. He told the House of Assembly: “Why is it necessary for us to inquire into the events of December 2016? Because it was so serious and unprecedented in modern Bermuda, that we owe it to ourselves to get to the bottom of it.”

Mr Swan added: “Why must we submit [the committee's] report to the House of Assembly soon? Because already ... one year has passed and much of what happened that day remains to be brought to the sunshine of public scrutiny.”

The MP previously called for parliamentary committees to be open to the public when he was leader of the United Bermuda Party. He said in 2009 his party would oppose proposals to keep parliamentary committees behind closed doors.

“We are not in favour of keeping House of Assembly committees closed to the public, particularly the Public Accounts Committee,” said Mr Swan.

“We were successful in getting the Joint Select Committee on education opened to the press and hoped it would lead to other committee openings because Bermuda wants and needs greater transparency in all aspects of its governance.”

Yesterday, the member for St George's West did not reply to an e-mail asking if his views had changed.

We asked Mr Swan if he now believed all JSCs should hold their sessions in private or whether he believed secrecy was necessary specifically for his committee's inquiries into the events of December 2, 2016, when protesters and police clashed during a demonstration in Hamilton about the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of the airport. Committee member Joan Dillas-Wright, the Senate president, said: “I think any questions you have should be directed to the chairman, Kim Swan.”

PLP MP Tinée Furbert said she would not comment until the committee's report was released, while party colleague Neville Tyrrell said: “I can't answer you.”

Government backbencher Scott Simmons did not respond to an e-mail and nor did One Bermuda Alliance MP Ben Smith or OBA senator Marcus Jones. An OBA spokesman said on behalf of Mr Smith and Mr Jones: “They don't think it is appropriate to comment until the report is published.”

On December 2, 2016, protesters prevented MPs from entering the House of Assembly to debate legislation on the airport project, and police officers in riot helmets used pepper spray on the crowd.

David Burt, who organised the demonstration as Opposition leader, said afterwards: “To see riot police come out, to see senior citizens pepper sprayed from behind, it's a sad day, and someone will have to answer for today.”

Mr Burt, now the Premier, said last week that the PLP, on being elected in July 2017, was given the chance to “seek the facts and to obtain justice for those Bermudians that were victimised in such a brutal manner”.

But he added it was “not for the Premier to comment” on the committee holding its sessions in secret, as that was a matter for the chairman, members and Mr Lister.

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

The Royal Gazette has appealed that decision to Shernette Wolffe, the clerk to the Legislature. National security minister Wayne Caines told the House yesterday that the police would continue to focus on “public order training” following the December 2016 event.

Front line: a Bermuda Police Service officer targets protesters with pepper spray at the Reid Street gate to the Sessions House grounds during the Decembr 2, 2016 protest over the funding and contract for the construction of the new airport building (Photograph by Kevin Smith)

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Published March 07, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated March 07, 2019 at 7:29 am)

Wall of silence over pepper spray inquiry

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