Parliamentarians began debate on the Government’s Bill for the prevention and suppression of human trafficking, particularly of women and children; a Bill that facilitates The Bahamas in meeting its obligations under the United Nations Protocol respecting the trafficking in persons, and in providing comprehensive measures to combat that activity.

The Bill before parliament would fully implement one of the four instruments comprising the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, generally known as “The Palermo Convention”.

In moving the Bill Wednesday, Minister of Education the Hon. Carl Bethel said, “We have brought this Bill to this Parliament to begin the process of legislative action and consultation necessary to enact a Law that will criminalize all forms of human trafficking, as currently known to international Law.

“The Bill, once enacted, will criminalize human trafficking whether it takes place from another country to The Bahamas; or from The Bahamas to another country; or within The Bahamas.”

The Minister pointed out that once enacted, the Bill would bring The Bahamas into full compliance with international best practices.

“Once again we will have affirmed our commitment as a people to maintain and preserve the highest standards of conduct both in our financial services sector and in every aspect of our society,” he noted.

Through the Bill, a sentence of not less than three years or no more than five years imprisonment in the Magistrates Court, or a five-year to life sentence in the Supreme Court can be handed down for persons convicted of engaging, conspiring (with another or others) or facilitating human trafficking.

“On this point, I wish to advise that the view of the Government is that as a matter of policy it is preferable for the legislature not to attempt to pass laws with minimum sentences. The trend in the Courts and in the Privy Council is to frown upon such attempts as being attempts to ‘fetter the judiciary’.

“Hence it is for the consideration of this House during the committee stage whether we will amend this subsection to merely set a maximum sentence,” the Minister emphasised.

A person found guilty of trafficking shall be liable to have his property forfeited and can be also ordered to pay “full restitution” to the victim under the Bill’s said provisions.

The crime of trafficking, as laid out in the Bill, can be committed if the victim is recruited or transported within The Bahamas, from The Bahamas to another country, or to The Bahamas from another country where there is any threat or force or coercion, abduction, deception or fraud, abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or the giving or receiving or a benefit to obtain the consent of someone who has control over the victim.

“And whether or not there is any of the above, where a child is transported for exploitation, that is the crime of trafficking,” Minister Bethel said.

A person who hides, removes, withholds or destroys a travel document, identity papers or immigration documents in order to traffic or to assist in the crime of trafficking would be liable on conviction in the Magistrates’ Court to three years’ imprisonment, or 10 years imprisonment if convicted in the Supreme Court.

The Bill also makes it a crime for persons in essence to be financiers of trafficking, and on conviction in a Magistrates’ Court a person who receives a financial benefit from trafficking can be fined $10,000.00 or imprisoned for 3 years or both, or fined $15,000.00 or 10 years’ imprisonment or both in the Supreme Court.

“Section 5 [of the Bill] makes it a crime of trafficking for any person to transport or to conspire to transfer or to assist in transferring anyone in The Bahamas or across an international border for the purposes of prostitution,” Minister Bethel advised.

“By section 5 (2) the penalty for transporting for prostitution either in The Bahamas or across an international border is $15,000.00 or 3 years’ imprisonment on conviction in the Magistrates’ Court.”

Additionally, the Bill states that where a person is charged with trafficking persons for exploitation or destroying or taking identity papers for the purposes of trafficking, the consent of the victim is irrelevant. Similarly, evidence of the victim’s past sexual behaviour is irrelevant.

A victim who complains of the commission of the offence of trafficking “shall not be liable for prosecution” either for violations of immigration laws or for prostitution, and the offence of trafficking is an extraditable offence for the purposes of Bahamian extradition law.

Legal proceedings involving child victims, or specified sexual offences must be heard “in camera” although the press may be present. Victims cannot be identified, and there are fines prescribed in the Bill for breaches of confidentiality.

Of the Bill, Minister Bethel said: “This is a matter that is of very high importance to the Government as it is yet another step towards the goal of enhancing the protection afforded, particularly to women and children and the most vulnerable members of society generally, from all forms of exploitation and abuse.

“I wish to assure every Bahamian that their Government, led by the Rt. Hon. Hubert Ingraham is fully committed to the protection of our people from exploitation, and the protection of the Sovereignty of our country from exploitation by international criminal elements who would invade our country’s territory in order to commit international crimes.”

The Minister of National Security, who is the Minister responsible for the administration of the Bill when enacted, is mandated to develop a plan to help victims of trafficking in cooperation with the Minister responsible for Social Services, inclusive of child care, housing, counseling, medical care, employment and educational opportunities, and legal aid.