A bad precedent
Guardian News Editor
Published: Aug 19, 2013
As the guardian of the rules of the House of Assembly, House Speaker Dr. Kendal Major often finds himself walking a tight rope, tiptoeing between fairness and the appearance of bias.
He is not the first speaker, of course, to face this given the nature of our parliamentary system.
Coming off a widely publicized row he had with Opposition Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis over certain controversial comments Minnis made a few weeks ago about Prime Minister Perry Christie, Major was faced with another dicey situation.
To some, he appeared hypocritical after sitting silently while Tall Pines MP Leslie Miller named the man he suggested is responsible for the murder of his son Mario in 2002.
As anyone paying attention to the matter of Major and Minnis would know, Major suspended Minnis for two sittings because of his allegations about Christie and his reported relationship with Lyford Cay billionaire Peter Nygard.
As the House moved on to other matters on its agenda last Monday, Miller used his parliamentary protection to tell the country that he had been advised that Dion Bowe, a business consultant, had told a girl he was seeing that he was going to have Mario killed.
The statement raised eyebrows in many quarters and it grabbed headlines.
Major defended his decision to allow Miller to proceed with his comments, and has made it clear they will not be expunged from the record of the House.
The speaker claimed this could not be compared to Minnis’ Nygard comments (which he ordered expunged) as Minnis was offending a member of the House, not a private citizen.
“As long as he stays within the rules of free speech as it pertains to the rules of the House, then he is within his rights as a member of Parliament to call a name of an individual although understandably it may be astonishing to the public,” Major said of Miller.
The speaker’s determination on this matter goes completely against long-standing parliamentary practice.
Speakers before him have protected private citizens who cannot defend themselves in the House from attack.
It also seems to offend the House rule that says, “Reference shall not be made in debate to the character or conduct of any person except in his official and public capacity.”
Miller’s statement has undoubtedly tarnished the reputation of Bowe, a private citizen, who has no right to a response in Parliament and could not successfully sue as Miller is protected by absolute privilege.
In his highly questionable decision on the matter of the naming of Dion Bowe, the speaker relied on the parliamentary free speech rule.
Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, an authority on the parliamentary rule system which the Bahamas parliament relies, states that, “Subject to the rules of order in debate, a member may state whatever he thinks fit in debate, however offensive it may be to the feelings, or injurious to the character, of individuals; and he is protected by his privilege from any action for liable, as well as from any other question or molestation.”
Still, the speaker’s determination that he cannot protect a private citizen from unfair or unwarranted attack by a member of parliament is worrying.
Attorney Wayne Munroe, who represents Bowe, said, “It is noteworthy that Dr. Minnis’ attack was on someone in Parliament, well able to defend himself on the floor of Parliament, yet he was [ordered] to withdraw it.
“And when he didn’t it was struck from the record and he was then punished with two days’ leave. Much more effort must be taken, in my view, by the speaker of the House to ensure that private Bahamian citizens are not the subject of undue attacks by parliamentarians who have absolute privilege.”
Bowe engaged Munroe last week after Miller’s House statements were prominently reported in the media.
Former House Speaker Oswald Ingraham sat in the chair when Miller raised this issue in the House previously.
Ingraham told National Review that the speaker has authority to protect private citizens and should exercise this authority.
Asked if the rules protect private citizens, Ingraham said, “Of course they do.”
“My thoughts and my opinion on this is — and of course I think the rules will bear this out — that members of Parliament because of the fact that they have privilege, they cannot be sued or anything like that, I think that should make [them] more responsible, to refrain from maligning private citizens,” he said.
“As a former speaker, that was a matter that we constantly had to deal with and of course as speaker you have to be on top of that situation to be sure that, that is not done to a very large extent.”
Most of us will never know the anguish Miller and his family have had to endure over the brutal death of his son.
It is obviously something that still haunts them.
This criticism of his decision to name a private citizen in reference to murder and the speaker’s determination that it will remain on the record of the House is not intended to subtract from the sensitive nature of the situation.
It was also a point Prime Minister Christie seemed to be making when he said last Tuesday, “Anyone who knows me knows that I do not accept that Parliament is a place to do that [name a private citizen].
“I am very, very clear on that in terms of my own position. You have absolute privilege in Parliament.
“But we are not a court of law. A statement has really the impact of a judgment against someone. That is why it is a very difficult thing to have that happen in Parliament.”
Christie noted however that he could not relate to Miller’s anguish as he has never lost a son.
The fact that no one was ever convicted of the gruesome crime has prolonged the family’s grief and delayed any closure or healing.
In May 2010, a jury for a second time failed to reach a verdict in the trial of the men accused of the brutal slaying.
Brothers Ricardo Miller and Ryan Miller were charged with the murder. Mario’s mutilated body was found in bushes near Super Value food store in Winton, not too far from where he lived.
Prosecutors had alleged that the men killed Mario to steal cocaine that he was trying to sell off.
The men denied involvement in the murder.
Miller has on several occasions used his position as a parliamentarian to shed light on the need for justice in this matter.
The naming of Bowe was stunning to say the least, although Miller has called his name on the floor of the House before in connection with this matter.
Last Monday, Miller repeated portions of a story he told in the House in March 2007, even as Prime Minister Christie and Philip Brave Davis (now deputy prime minister) urged him not to.
In 2007, Miller told the House that his son had multiple stab wounds to the chest, neck and abdomen and one gaping wound through the heart.
He also said there was a gruesome knife wound to his son’s groin area.
“It was obvious to see that my son, Mario, suffered a horrific and agonizing death sparked by an unspeakable rage that would be repulsive to any decent human being,” Miller said in the House.
“He’s in the graveyard in Woodlawn Gardens. I’m not alluding to anything that is before the court or anyone who is charged with that case.
“I’m alluding to the fact that justice, in my opinion, was subverted and those who walk free in this country tonight knowing that at any time I attempt to speak [I am prevented].”
SEARCH FOR JUSTICE
When he addressed the House in 2007, Miller said a few days after Mario’s heinous demise he was approached “by one Dion Bowe”.
“Dion Bowe informed me that he knew the Jamaican who had come to The Bahamas by way of Chub Cay and had killed my son,” Miller said in 2010.
“Dion Bowe claimed that he could assist me in dealing with the Jamaican.
“As the police investigation proceeded, it was ascertained that a former girlfriend of the person I mentioned had slept in my son, Mario’s house at my residential compound on Sassoon Drive.”
Miller at the time did not complete the details of his very sad story as he was blocked from doing so.
Christie advised on the floor of the House in 2007, “No matter how hard and harsh it is, those of us who are leaders must exercise the greatest care, ensuring that even though in our opinion justice was not served, that while the matter is pending, we are obliged by the rules of this House, not to interfere with the process of the rules of the House.”
Miller shot back: “Everyone in this country has a right to be heard in a fair and transparent manner.”
He said, “This is the only place I get to speak my son’s case. Others do what they please up at that place, up the road there, they do what they please. I can’t interfere there. I can’t do anything. I am harmless. I am hopeless too.
“I want justice. I will say it anywhere to get justice, fair justice, that everyone in this country is equal, that it [does not] matter who you know or who you are.”
When he raised the matter again last Monday, Miller indicated he later learnt something about Bowe that he did not know at the time Bowe approached him about Mario’s murder.
“The gentleman in question, the police questioned him once. He subsequently left the island for 10 years,” he said.
“Mr. Speaker, that same person that told me who killed my son, and who I understood from the police and others that he had, in fact, told his girlfriend that he was going to have my son killed, is back in town now.
“[He] calls himself a business consultant. The gentleman I’m talking about is fellow named Dion Bowe. [I’ve] seen him around town.”
In an exclusive interview with The Nassau Guardian last Tuesday, Bowe strongly denied any involvement in the murder and expressed regret and concern that his name was called.
Miller later said it was not his intension to accuse Bowe of murder.
If the government accepts a recommendation of the Constitutional Commission, which recently reported, private citizens could have the right to respond in Parliament to attacks on their reputation.
The commission said while it does not recommend that any limitations be placed on the privileges and immunities of members of the House and Senate, citizens who are the subject of any unwarranted personal attacks should have the right to respond from the bar of either house.
In the meantime, the speaker should stay in line with the spirit of the rules of the House.
It is not only his job to protect members, but all citizens who deserve fair treatment, observed Oswald Ingraham, the former House speaker.
To do otherwise would be to cement the perception that he is not even-handed in his approach.