Bill to recover illegally obtained assets introduced

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

Photo: Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister of Belize

by Marco Lopez

BELMOPAN, Fri. May 19, 2023

Politicians, public officers, and private citizens will be subject to the provisions of the Civil Assets Recovery & Unexplained Wealth legislation introduced at last Friday’s sitting of the House of Representatives. Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño called the reading a “historic moment” of his government at it takes a “bold step” in the implementation of good governance. The bill, which has been in the works for months, is modeled off of Eastern Caribbean jurisdiction legislation, and was drafted with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The legislation provides remedies to tackle corruption, PM Briceño said, and it is part of Belize’s fulfillment of its obligations under the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). Belize acceded to the UNCAC in 2016. This key legislation is being introduced 7 years later at the impetus of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF) and in anticipation of the looming Fourth Round Evaluation scheduled for Belize later this year.

“By now, we are certainly well aware that Belize is in its fourth-round review process by the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF). During this review, Belize Anti-Money Laundering, Countering the Financing of Terrorism, and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction – the AML-CFT-CPT systems are being reviewed. FATF Recommendation 4 requires countries to adopt the broadest possible measures to enable their authorities to freeze, seize, and confiscate property laundered under the instrumentality of a crime. This covers both criminal and non-conviction-based confiscation,” Prime Minister Briceño explained in the House on Friday..

FATF recommendation 38 calls on countries to respond to requests for assistance from other nations to recover unlawfully obtained wealth. In his remarks, the PM noted that the legislation provides a comprehensive framework to carry out recovery of such assets. The Financial Intelligence Unit has been named the Civil Recovery Authority in this process. They will have broad-reaching powers to pursue civil recovery investigations, which will include freezing of assets, appointing receivers, and recovery of assets through unexplained wealth orders.

“One of the highlights of the bill is the unexplained wealth provisions: Firstly, the Civil Recovery Authority would need to obtain a preliminary Unexplained Wealth Order, requiring an individual to file a declaration of wealth and appear before the High Court to answer questions,” PM Briceño said.

If the individual provides false or misleading information, such actions could constitute an offense, PM Briceño said. He shared that the main goal is to empower the FIU – through the use of unexplained wealth orders – to engage in civil recovery, but they must at the same time protect the rights of individuals.

“Unexplained Wealth Orders have proven to be a powerful provision in tackling serious organized crime and corruption. Because we also know that we have all of these drug people or ‘drug lords’ within the country. And you know they don’t work, but they are driving these fancy vehicles; so, this will give you the ability to pull them in, and they will have to explain how they have their wealth. Weh work do they do, what are their investments?” PM Briceño said.

In consultation with the Joint Unions, the government compiled a list of agencies that can make referrals to the FIU to launch civil recovery investigations. The Director of the FIU Criminal Arm, the Director of the Belize Tax Service, the Comptroller of Customers, the Chairman of the Integrity Commission, and the Commissioner of Police are among those who are allowed to make referrals to launch these types of investigations.

The Prime Minister made clear that while these measures are seen largely as a safeguard against corruption by politicians and public officers, private citizens are also subject to the provisions.

“So, it’s important for the public to understand that this bill that we are introducing today … everybody talks about the politicians – there may be some good reason to do so. But it also will apply to public officers, members of the police, Immigration, Customs, and everybody within the government. But it also applies to private citizens who are in the business of conning people, stealing, and having monies that they can’t explain how they got their wealth,” PM Briceño said.

PM Briceño further outlined that the legislation would thus be applicable to any “conduct that would be contrary to any criminal laws in Belize, or conduct in other jurisdictions where, if it had taken place in Belize, it would have been an offense.” Under the legislation, the Attorney General’s Ministry may make a request for mutual legal assistance to other jurisdictions.  

PM Briceño also pointed out that while this legislation is “desperately required”, they must ensure that the legislation is not used for political victimization.

“We also have to take measures to ensure that it is not going to be used for political victimization. That will not be used for our government to go after anybody just maliciously, or any future government to go maliciously at people just because they don’t like them and they don’t support them … we have to ensure that we ensure that we put the proper mechanism to try to prevent that as much as possible,” PM Briceño said.

Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow, in comments following the sitting, supported the Bill and went further to call for the legislation to be applied retroactively. He expressed hopes that the law can extend beyond the thirteen years of the UDP.  

“No politician should come into politics to become wealthy. You come into politics to advocate on behalf of the people that elected you to implement policies and to serve. It should be all about public administration. It shouldn’t be about wealth. So, I have absolutely no difficulty with this bill,” Barrow said.

He said that ensuring retroactivity would make the bill a bipartisan piece of legislation and not a political bill “that seeks to go after politicians in the opposition, but all politicians that cannot explain their source of wealth and assets that they have amassed since becoming elected members of the House.”

To ensure the country is prepared for the CFATF audit, amendments were introduced to a range of legislation. (These include the International Business Companies Act, the Local Companies Act, the Insurance Act, the Financial Intelligence Unit Act, and the International Limited Liabilities Act.)

Bills read for a second time included the Credit Union Amendment Bill, Domestic Banks and Financial Institutions Amendment Bill, Central Bank of Belize Amendment, International Banking Amendment Bill 2023, Money Lenders Amendment Bill 2023, and the Money Laundering Terrorism and Prevention Amendment and National Payment System Amendment.