Nov. 12, 2003 – Sen. Lorraine Berry has spoken out in defense of two St. Thomas fishermen who she said have received "draconian" treatment from the British Virgin Islands government. And she has asked B.V.I. Chief Minister Orlando Smith for "compassion" in their case.
Brothers Rick and Jason Berry were arrested on Oct. 15, 2002, at West End, Tortola, as they prepared to unload 200 pounds of pot fish, worth about $550, for sale to the B.V.I. Fishing Complex. "What they were doing was pursuing a legitimate livelihood," their lawyer, Hayden St. Clair-Douglas, said as he asked for leniency last month after entering pleas of guilty to charges of fishing in B.V.I. waters without a license and registration.
The brothers' $550 catch has wound up costing them upwards of $36,000, including the loss of their boat, valued at $25,000, plus legal fees. (See "B.V.I. fines 2 fishermen $11K and takes their boat".)
Although the arrests occurred more than a year ago and the Oct. 29 sentencing on Tortola was reported widely by the local media, V.I. public officials have remained mute until now on what many see as a shocking miscarriage of justice. James O'Bryan, St. Thomas-Water Island administrator, said on Wednesday that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has not taken an official position on the matter. "We are busy right now with flooding problems," O'Bryan added.
Sen. Berry said on Wednesday that she had written to Turnbull last year after the brothers' arrest and he had replied that he would look into the case. "I don't know if he has, but if so, it hasn't been to their benefit," she said.
Some months ago, she said, she traveled to Tortola as the invited guest speaker at a fund-raiser for former Chief Minister H. Lavity Stoutt. "While I was there," she said, "I made an appointment to meet the new governor" — Tom Macan, who had taken office in October 2002. "I spoke with him, and he was not receptive to the concerns I raised," she said. "I was not encouraged by my meeting at all."
Berry said on Wednesday that she is intensely concerned about the treatment of the brothers by the B.V.I. government.
On Oct. 29, a B.V.I. magistrate sentenced them to pay a total of $11,000 in fines and to forfeit their boat, Forever Fishing, which had been impounded since their arrest a year earlier. They also have incurred legal fees, the cost of ferry tickets and lost income due to the impounding of their boat. If they don't pay the fines by Dec. 15, they will spend six months in prison.
Sen. Berry wrote on Nov. 7 to Smith, who took office last June, appealing for understanding and asking him to intervene in the case. She noted the close relationship between the British and U.S. Virgin Islands dating back to the 18th century, saying the two territories have "the closest ties in the Caribbean, excluding Sint Maarten/St. Martin."
"Needless to say, due to your moral authority and political power, you can intervene in this matter and urge the relevant parties to be compassionate to the young men," she told Smith. She continued: "Our two societies cannot allow any issue to become rifts between us, and I urge you to use your prescience in forestalling a cycle of mutual recrimination on infractions that both territories' residents will inadvertently do."
Sen. Berry said an investigation by her office determined "an apparent desultory pattern" dating back to the tenure of the previous chief minister, Ralph O'Neal.
First, she wrote, after the Forever Fishing was halted for fishing in B.V.I. waters, those aboard "were treated like common criminals, i.e., narcotics traffickers or illegal alien smugglers."
"Once it became clear that they were working with a B.V.I. entrepreneur, the issue shifted to the perception of illegal commerce," she told Smith. The brothers admitted in court that they had been working with expired fishing licenses but said that was because their B.V.I. business partner had not fulfilled his agreement get the documents renewed, although he had been paid to do so.
"Ironically, despite their candor," Sen. Berry wrote Smith, "Jason and Rick had the 'book thrown at them.'"
Stating that the brothers are not relatives of hers, merely constituents who share the same last name, Berry told Smith that her office has been inundated with calls from other concerned constituents. She said she is "acutely aware of past tendencies of commercial and recreational fishermen from the U.S. Virgin Islands to ignore maritime borders." However, she said, that is not the case with the Berrys.
"In the case of the Berry brothers, I must frankly state that from the U.S. Virgin Islands' perspective, the posture of your judiciary is overly harsh and unjust," she said.
Sen. Berry told Smith she is aware that his National Democratic Party is committed to "expand your marine industry," which she called "admirable." However, she wrote, "we see room for greater understanding and mercy to the Berry brothers."
A fund-raising event for the brothers and their families is planned for Saturday or Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend at Hull Bay. Sen. Berry said the exact date and other details will be announced shortly.
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