Proposed amendments to the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act in The Bahamas will increase the penalty for serious sexual offences to life imprisonment, and introduce the new offences of voyeurism and electronic procuration.

Through the Bill, persons convicted of producing child pornography, rape, incest, unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, unlawful sexual intercourse with a person suffering from a mental disorder, or having sexual intercourse with a minor of the same sex would be subject to life imprisonment.

In moving debate in parliament on the amendment Bill Monday, Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture the Hon. Desmond Bannister said, “One of government’s most fundamental responsibilities is to ensure that laws are enacted to protect those who are subject to victimization by others.

“I cannot think of a group that is more vulnerable and more deserving of protection than our women and children who may be subjected to sexual abuse; and this Government takes very seriously its’ duty to protect Bahamians from the sexual predators of the world.”

Minister Bannister pointed out that modern advances in technology could not have been imagined when the Sexual Offences Act was first passed in 1991; noting that some of the proposed amendments seek to address those advances and their use in the commission of sexual offences.

Calling the new offence of voyeurism a “welcomed addition to the law”, the Minister explained that persons “who invade the privacy of others, who sneakily take a photograph or make a video recording of others in circumstances where the person being recorded or photographed would have had a reasonable expectation of privacy, commits an offence and can face the sanction of the law.”

The Bill makes it an offence for a person to print, copy, publish, distribute, circulate, sell or make such a recording available by some other means if he knows that the person who made the recording in the first place, did so in breach of the law.

And one would also be breaking the law if he has such a recording in his possession for the purpose of printing, copying, or distributing it knowing that the maker made it in breach of the law.

“These new voyeurism related offences are all summary offences,” the Minister noted. “They will be tried by Magistrates; hence the long process of holding preliminary inquiries and waiting for Supreme Court dates will not impede the timely prosecution of these offences. Offenders can expect that they will be prosecuted and face up to five years in jail.”

Regarding cases of child pornography, the Minister termed a penalty of life in prison for conviction a punishment that “certainly fits the crime.”

“Child pornography is a vile and despicable offence,” he said. “It stigmatizes its victims, and destroys lives. That is why if a person is charged with producing child pornography, it is no defence for them to say that they did not know or believe that the person depicted as a child was under the age of 18. They cannot even raise the defence that they had no means of knowing that the person depicted as a child was under the age of 18.”

This provision in the Bill ensures that even if adults permit themselves to be shown in explicit movies or photographs, those who produce such movies or photographs must take positive steps to ensure that the persons whose images are used are not under the age of 18.

Continuing, Minister Bannister described the offence of rape as one of the “most wicked” offences imaginable.

“As a society, we must send a strong message and that is why we are amending the law to change the penalty for rape from seven years in the first instance to life imprisonment.”

Regarding unlawful sexual intercourse with minors, the Minister cited police statistics over the last nine years that show a total of 1,787 cases of the offence.

“Childhood should be a time of innocence,” he said, “but too many of our children have had their purity destroyed by callous and uncaring adults who seek to have sexual relations with them.

“A person who has unlawful sexual intercourse with a child under 14 years of age faces a term of imprisonment of seven years for the first offence and 14 years for the second offence. When this Bill becomes law the penalty will change to life imprisonment for the first offence so that these predators do not get a second chance.”

Attempted sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 14 also carries the penalty of life imprisonment, as does sexual intercourse and attempted sexual intercourse with a child over the age of 14 and under the age of 16.

The offence of procuration in the Bill has been amended to include procuration by electronic means, so that a person is subject to 15 years imprisonment for procuring or attempting to procure another person either directly or via the Internet or a telephone, to engage in unlawful sexual intercourse when they are under the age of 18.

The person is also subject to 15 years imprisonment if convicted of procuring someone under the age of 18 to become a prostitute, to leave The Bahamas so as to live in or frequent a brothel, to leave their home for the purpose of prostitution or frequenting a brother, or to have unlawful sexual intercourse as a result of threats, intimidation or false representations. The current penalty is eight years imprisonment.

This change also applies to the administration of “date rape” drugs, where a person administers drugs or other substances to another person in order to overpower and take advantage of them for the purpose of having sexual intercourse with them.

To bring about quicker prosecutions of some of the sexual offences laid out in the Bill, prosecutions in those cases would be permitted without the prior consent of the Attorney General.

Currently, in all cases of unlawful sexual intercourse with a child between ages 14 and 16; sexual intercourse with a spouse without consent and incest, prosecution cannot commence without the consent of the Attorney General.

“Once this Bill becomes law that will change,” the Minister advised. “The police will be free to bring charges of offences contrary to these provisions of the law without the consent of the Attorney General except in cases where the accused person is under the age of 21. It is anticipated that the removal of this barrier will enhance the ability of the police to bring prosecutions quickly.”

Three other amendments in the Bill change the penalties of existing offences to terms of imprisonment of five years or less so that they will become triable by Magistrates: offences that deal with sexual intercourse in public places, sexual intercourse with animals, and indecent assault.

The current penalty for consenting adults engaging in sex in a public place is up to 20 years imprisonment, a penalty Minister Bannister called “draconian”. The penalty in the Bill would be reduced to two years.

In the case of indecent assault, which is “unwanted sexual behaviour that reasonable people believe to be indecent”, the penalty in the Bill would be reduced from eight years to three years, with the case to be tried in the Magistrate’s Court.

Minister Bannister explained that if the indecent assault penalty were left unchanged, there would be “thousands of persons charged with the offence who could not be given a constitutionally mandated trial within a reasonable time because the offence is not regarded as serious as other matters which have to be brought before the Supreme Court.”

As for the offence of sex with animals, the Minister said convictions in these cases are difficult; therefore “it only makes sense to have such matters tried before a Magistrate rather than sit on the Supreme Court docket and never be heard.”