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Court rules BTL renationalisation unconstitutional; government rushes bill to ensure telco control

6 Jul 2011

On 24 June 2011 the Belize Court of Appeal issued a surprise judgement, ruling that the renationalisation of Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) in August 2009 was unconstitutional, and handing a victory to ousted shareholders grouped under the Ashcroft Alliance, affiliated to the UK’s Lord Michael Ashcroft. According to Belizean newspaper The Reporter, the court found that the takeover did not satisfy the definition of ‘public purpose acquisition.’ The government’s stated purpose for the acquisition was to provide the industry with stability, but the court decided that the state did not have to acquire 94% of BTL to get the desired level of stability. The judgement also criticised the government for not giving BTL a hearing or opportunity to address issues before the enforced re-appropriation of shares. Due to the ruling, the Acquisition Act issued in August 2009 was effectively declared null and void.

However, following its shock defeat in the appeal court, on 4 July 2011 the government took steps in parliament to introduce new legislation to enforce the reacquisition of BTL, with a transcript of proceedings relayed by local radio station and news service LoveFM. Prime Minister Dean Barrow introduced a new ‘Bill for an Act to amend the Belize Telecommunications Act (No.16 of 2002)’ to ‘clarify and expand provisions relating to the assumption of control over BTL in the public interest.’ PM Barrow went on to announce that the government will appeal the latest decision to the Caribbean Court of Justice. He continued: ‘The amendments proposed… satisfy every concern expressed by the Court of Appeal judgment. Therefore as soon as the Bill is passed, we intend to reacquire the same property that we took in August 2009… we would have then done everything legally necessary to regain control of Belize Telemedia Limited.’ He also recognised that the original acquisition of BTL had ‘procedural flaws’ which would now be corrected under the new Bill, as part of a wider aim to ‘constitutionally entrench government’s majority ownership of utilities so that no future administration would be able to upset that ownership.’ The Bill was taken through all of its stages in parliament on Monday, and was sent to the Senate for ratification, after which it will be signed into law by the Governor General. A new acquisition order will subsequently be issued by the Minister of Public Utilities, effectively meaning that the government will again be in full control of BTL. The opposition leader John Briceno walked out of parliament in protest, calling the behaviour of the government illegal and akin to dictatorship.

Belize, Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL, Digi)

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