Speaker of the BVI House of Assembly Julian Willock announced his resignation Tuesday afternoon, reportedly at the request of acting Premier Natalio Wheatley. It was unclear if the resignation was related to the arrest of Premier Andrew Fahie or the recently released study that recommended temporary suspension of locally elected governance to weed out potential corruption and mismanagement.
The ruling Virgin Islands Party voted Wheatley as their party leader over Fahie, a move that would normally elevate Wheatley to premier. However, Fahie must first resign.
In a Florida jail, Fahie may have good reason not to resign. He has asserted U.S. federal courts have no right to detain or prosecute him for alleged cocaine smuggling and money laundering because he is the British Virgin Islands’ head of state, according to a brief filed Monday. Fahie’s Ft. Lauderdale-based lawyers claimed such immunity is codified in international and domestic law and demanded his immediate release from detention. Legal experts reached Tuesday, however, said the assertion is on shaky footing.
Heads of state are generally given immunity as a diplomatic courtesy to avoid countries indicting each other’s leaders back and forth. But this area of international and domestic law is exceedingly complicated and filled with unique, often politically tinged precedents. Potential prosecutions of leaders or former leaders from Panama, Liberia, Haiti, Libya, Somalia, Venezuela, the Philippines, the Turks and Caicos, and elsewhere all take different turns because of their circumstances.
Michael Bachner, former prosecutor and current white-collar criminal defense lawyer in New York City, said any claim to immunity Fahie might assert could be quickly denied by the current BVI government.
“It can say, ‘We’re not asserting immunity.’ It’s the country’s to assert; it’s not the person’s or individual’s to assert. There’s clearly cases talking about that,” Bachner said.
“And in addition, there’s a serious question as to whether or not immunity applies ever to a person who is acting in his own personal interest as compared to the interest of the country. So, if a person is involved in drug trafficking for personal benefit, for personal money, there’s certainly a strong argument that can be made he should not be given head-of-state immunity because he was not acting as head of state for the benefit of the country,” said Bachner, the one-time deputy bureau chief in the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor of the City of New York.
In the 1986 case against deposed Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, U.S. prosecutors argued head-of-state immunity is a privilege, not a right, granted by the receiving state.
“The extent of the immunity is informed by the receiving country’s commitment to certain international compacts and by considerations of reciprocity. Head of state immunity has been afforded to foreign heads of state pursuant to a suggestion of immunity by the State Department. No independent judicial source for head of state immunity appears to exist,” according to the court records.
Fahie’s motion with the court was unusual because it didn’t cite any case law. These are already-decided rulings that help a judge understand a motion’s validity. There are a few that don’t help Fahie’s case.
In particular, the 1985 arrest and conviction of Turks and Caicos Prime Minister Norman Saunders for his role in cocaine trafficking charges may stick out. Saunders, the then-head of state of a British overseas territory like the BVI, was sentenced to 10 years for his involvement, although he was not convicted of actual drug smuggling.
Prosecutors in Florida had not responded to Fahie’s immunity claim as of Wednesday night.
Back in Tortola, angry Virgin Islanders crowded the BVI governor’s residence Monday morning to protest the report that called for at least two years of direct rule by Britain. Amanda Milling, the British minister for the overseas territory, arrived in Road Town Sunday to meet with government officials about the inquiry. The details of that meeting were not yet available, but reaction to the recent turmoil has the normally sedate territory roiling.
Carvin Malone, minister for Health and Social Development, took to social media in caps lock: “LET ALL VOICES BE HEARD AS ONE. NO UK RULE! NOT GOING BACK TO 1949 OR 1966.”
BVI television news showed video of Virgin Islanders on the street with signs decrying direct rule as a return to colonialism, even slavery. A man on a flatbed truck loaded with loudspeakers said the message needed to be heard by Milling, BVI-appointed Governor John Rankin, the Privy Council, and anyone supporting cessation of local rule.
Other, quieter voices are calling for a full accounting of government dealings.
Like many BVIslanders, Road Town-based photographer Jerome Edgar Morton asked for prayers for his country. Morton added the government cannot function in good faith in the shadow of malfeasance. He said the current reckoning is a long time coming. Difficult as it is, it is necessary, he said.
“Good governance with good intentions is the hallmark of our government,” Morton said. “Corruption is the enemy of development and of good governance.”
Morton’s remarks echo those of U.S. President Joe Biden, who in 2021 directed federal investigators to root out corruption wherever it may be found — domestically and internationally.
“Corruption corrodes public trust; hobbles effective governance; distorts markets and equitable access to services; undercuts development efforts; contributes to national fragility, extremism, and migration; and provides authoritarian leaders a means to undermine democracies worldwide. When leaders steal from their nations’ citizens or oligarchs flout the rule of law, economic growth slows, inequality widens, and trust in government plummets,” the June 2021 memorandum reads.
Allegedly conspiring with Lebanese Hezbollah operatives and Colombian cocaine producers, Fahie and his co-defendants, Port Authority Director Oleanvine Pickering Maynard and her son, Kadeem Maynard, are accused of conspiring to use BVI ports to traffic drugs and hide the proceeds through the territory’s famed financial services sector. They allegedly bragged about having police officers on the payroll.
Fahie and Pickering Maynard were both arrested April 28 at Miami-Opa-Locka Executive Airport, where, according to prosecutors, they thought they were meeting members of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel to get $700,000 in cash. The criminal complaint describes recorded conversations outlining apparent widespread and long-standing corruption among BVI officials and law enforcement. Kadeem Maynard was arrested in St. Thomas and was in a Puerto Rico jail cell as of Wednesday.
The three are charged with conspiracy to import five kilograms or more of cocaine and conspiracy to launder money following a months-long sting operation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, with the allegations outlined in a criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.