Where there is smoke…Character assassination and the culture of suspicion By Fabian Ade Badejo

It takes a lifetime of painstaking and consistent hard work, diligence, and dedication to build a career and a good name; it takes just one sentence of unsubstantiated suspicion to destroy one’s integrity and character. The much publicized suspension of Regina Labega and Edward Dest of the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau is the latest in what has become an ongoing saga in which our leaders, our very best and brightest are chopped down, first in the court of public opinion, where they have no redress, and later in the court of law where they may or may not be exonerated. What is disturbing about this trend is what I choose to call the culture of suspicion which is based on the popular saying, "where there is smoke, there is fire." 

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How can we, in the same breadth then claim that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty? By stating that where there is smoke, there must be fire, have we not already concluded that the suspect must have done something wrong? In so doing, the onus is now on the suspect to prove otherwise, rather than on the accuser to prove beyond any shadow of doubt, his accusations. This is turning the foundation and principles of justice and fairplay on their head. Presumption of innocence is thrown out of the window when we declare that there is no smoke without fire. It grants the accuser the upper hand in that the accuser is presumed to be incapable of false accusations or to be infallible in his or her suspicion.

Contrary to our portrayal of justice as a blindfolded lady, justice is not blind, and often times is not a lady, and does not act in a lady-like manner either. We all know about kangaroo courts. We all know too that if the system decides to go after you, it will find any stick to beat you with. The pity is that the public generally does not see the system at work, but prefers to believe indeed that nobody is evil enough to crucify another human being without any reasonable cause. I believe the biblical example of Jesus Christ settles that argument. If He who is without sin could be put to death on false accusation, who are we mortals?

It is important for us to focus on some aspects of our judicial process. In a criminal procedure, if you are suspected of a crime, you are arrested, detained and brought before the judge of instruction who will determine if you have a case to answer and if you should continue in detention. Until you are actually convicted in a court of law, you are still presumed innocent, regardless of how long you spend in detention. However, the longer you are detained, the quicker the presumption of innocence evaporates. At any event, the crime(s) you are suspected of committing must be disclosed to you from the onset of the investigation.

We often focus on the way something is done because we are a people who show respect even to our enemies. There is an unwritten code which we honor when we have to perform unpalatable tasks involving certain caliber of people in our community. For example, you don’t slam the handcuffs on a father in front of his children, no matter what he may be accused of. Actions like this, however, are designed precisely to create that smoke and lead people to believe that there "must" be some fire somewhere. This is the kind of smear that cannot be removed with the best stain remover from the fabric of one’s integrity, no matter how innocent the suspect turns out to be. Is this fair? Is it just?

Such character assassination based on a culture of suspicion hurts even more when the victim is someone who has given his or her entire life and career to the service of the same community. What message are we sending to the rest of the population, especially the younger ones, when those who should ordinarily be given medals of merit for their unselfish service to society are hounded like petty criminals and their names dragged to the mud because of a suspicion of wrongdoing?

I will not delve into the case of the two highest-ranking officials of the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau in order not to contaminate an already poisoned atmosphere which raises too many questions than one can find answers to. One of those questions is the timing of the measure.

What was so URGENT about an investigation that authorities claim had started before September 2010 – that is more than two months ago – that cannot wait until the island’s first major food and wine festival is held? How does this suspension stack up with the staffing position of the Bureau, knowing that up to five members of an already critically understaffed government agency are on sick leave? And all of this with the high tourist season just a few weeks away? The real suspicion is of something much more sinister on the part of those pulling the strings behind the scene. Perhaps, here is where indeed, we may apply the adage, where there is smoke, there is fire.