The 75 tonnes of Guyanese Rice that importer Jack Charles brought into Belize is at risk of being disposed of by the Customs Department. The only thing stopping this Government agency from doing that is an interim injunction which was granted by the Supreme Court to restrain them until further notice.
After waiting for 2 weeks, since Christmas Eve, Charles and his attorneys were finally given their day in court before Justice Sonya Young. They were trying to convince her to grant them permission to bring a case for Judicial Review against the Customs Department, and the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA). They continued to assert that these government bodies overstepped their mandate given to them by the importation laws when they detained his cargo. He and his advisors say that he had a reasonable expectation to be given an importation permit to bring in the Guyanese rice for sale in the Belizean market, but BAHA and Customs did not take the options granted to them under the law to refuse him this permit.
Charles’ position is that the Government was only allowed to detain his imported rice for agricultural and health reasons provided for in the law, but they refused to grant him his import permit on a policy decision that the Ministry of Agriculture took. As readers will remember, Charles says that he can import premium Grade A rice and sell it on shelves for 69 cents a pound, which is 21 Cents below the controlled price for the Grade C Rice produced by the local rice producers in Belize. The Government has taken the policy that at this time, it must prevent the Guyanese rice from being sold in Belize because it could destroy the local rice industry, and drive Belizean rice producers out of business.
The learned reasoning at this time is that even if the rice was allowed to be sold in Belize, because it is highly subsidized by the Guyanese Government, it would enjoy an unfair market advantage over the rice producers who’s production is not subsidized by the Belize Government. Another difficulty is that Guyana is a More Developed Country (MDC), and under CARICOM trading standards, an MDC cannot threaten the industry of a Lesser Developed Country (LDC), which is the current classification of Belize. So, that’s the difference of opinion that would have been tested before Justice Sonya Young.
On Monday, January 4, however, after Charles’ attorney, Leeroy Banner and the Government’s Deputy Solicitor General, Nigel Hawke, were heard, Justice Young refused to grant leave for Charles to bring a case for Judicial Review. He was stopped dead in his tracks at the very first step of this legal battle. The arguments were made in the judge’s chambers, and in the absence of the presence of the press, but the judge was reportedly very stern in her refusal to allow Charles leave. She reportedly commented that his decision to bring the rice into Belize without the import permit was unlawful and illegal, and he is now trying to use the court to legitimize his unlawful action. That appeared - at least on the face of it - to be the possible end of the dispute. So, on Tuesday, January 5 the Customs Department went before Senior Magistrate Sharon Frazer for an ex-parte hearing. That allowed for no one from Jack Charles’ camp to have to be notified, and in that hearing, Customs applied to the court for an order of forfeiture. Once granted, it would allow for the Department to take possession of the rice and destroy it. Senior Magistrate Frazer granted the order, which meant that Customs could go to the Port of Big Creek and unload the rice for disposal. Before they could get started, Charles’ attorneys Leeroy Banner and Michel Chebat were informed of that action, and they went before the Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin, for an emergency injunction to restrain the Government. The Chief Justice granted that injunction, which remains in effect until Tuesday, January 12. At that time, the order of the rice forfeiture will be tested to see if it is lawful. The outcome of that hearing is expected to determine whether the rice will be destroyed at this stage, and so, it is expected to be a fierce legal battle.