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On July 1, 2001, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, 54 years old, said that he would leave active politics within the following year, signaling the end of his nine-year stewardship at the helm of the island-chain nation. Ingraham, who revitalized the local economy and helped clean up its politics, said that his decision was final and did not depend on whether his Bahamas Freedom Party (BFP) won elections slated for 2002. In early 2001, Ingraham announced that new legislation would remove the notoriety of the islands' robust financial center as a place for money laundering; its provisions eliminated anonymity for international business accounts and improved local banks' cooperation with international investigative agencies. Shortly thereafter, the United States approved the Bahamas' request to protect non-American offshore banking clients' identities without paying a penalty, by giving the island country qualified jurisdiction status. However, in late November, a Bahamian court ruled that it was unconstitutional for government regulators to freeze suspicious bank accounts, thereby weakening laws that allowed the country to escape an international money laundering blacklist. The Bahamas' key tourist industry struggled throughout the year, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle in November and bad publicity from shark attacks, plane crashes, and an arson fire in September that burned Nassau's Straw Market, a popular local attraction.
The Bahamas, a 700-island nation in the Caribbean, is a member of the Commonwealth. It was granted independence in 1973. The British monarchy is represented by a governor-general.
Under the 1973 constitution, a bicameral parliament consisted of a 49-member house of assembly directly elected for five years and a 16-member senate with 9 members appointed by the prime minister, 4 by the leader of the parliament opposition, and 3 by the governor-general. The number of seats in the assembly has been reduced by 9, to 40, in keeping with a campaign promise by the Free National Movement (FNM) party. The prime minister is the leader of the party that commands a majority in the house.
Lynden Pindling, the country's independence hero who is known as the "Black Moses," served as prime minister for 25 years as the head of Progressive Liberal Party (PLP). Dogged by years of allegations of corruption and high official involvement in narcotics trafficking Pindling--who died in 2000--was ousted by Ingraham and the FNM in the 1992 elections after two and a half decades of rule. Ingraham, a lawyer and former cabinet official, had been expelled by the PLP in 1986 for his outspoken attacks on corruption, and became leader of the FNM in 1990.
Ingraham vowed to bring honesty, efficiency, and accountability to government. Pindling, at the time the western hemisphere's longest-serving head of government, relied on his image as the father of the nation's independence. With 90 percent of the electorate voting, the FNM won 32 seats in the house of assembly, to the PLP's 17. Pindling held his own seat and became the official opposition leader.
Upon taking office as prime minister, Ingraham appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the Pindling government. In 1995 the commission detailed widespread mismanagement and malpractice in the national telephone and airline companies. In the 1997 election, Ingraham claimed credit for revitalizing the economy by attracting foreign investment. Voters handed his FNM a 34 to 6 majority in parliament, rebuking Pindling and the PLP for a second time. In April 1997, Pindling resigned as opposition leader and was replaced by Perry Christie, who had served in the PLP cabinet until he denounced government corruption in the wake of a drug probe.
By the end of the 1990s, a spiraling crime rate linked to illegal narcotics and gunrunning had left Bahamians questioning whether the islands were returning to the ways of the previous decade, when the Bahamas was known as "a nation for sale." In March 2000, the U.S. State Department praised the Bahamas for giving "high priority" to combating the transshipment of drugs and for cooperating with regional antinarcotics efforts. In addition to setting up the new antidrug intelligence unit, the Ingraham government also announced sweeping plans to bring the country's financial sector into full compliance with international standards and practices. In June 2000, amendments to the Money Laundering (Proceeds of Crime) Act strengthened requirements for financial institutions to report suspicious and unusual transactions.
The government announced in October 2000 that it was creating a new intelligence unit to investigate suspicious financial activity in the island chain as part of an effort to remove the country from an international money laundering "blacklist." The measure followed the release of a report in June by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)--a coordinating body set up a decade ago by the Group of 7 economic powers to coordinate international efforts against money laundering--that cited the Bahamas for not doing enough to fight illegal flows of cash. The finding was made just four months after the United States called for the Bahamas to improve its judicial system, win convictions against narcotics kingpins, and speed up extraditions. A legislative package was approved that strengthened regulation of the financial sector, including a law giving government officials the power to freeze accounts. In June 2001, the FATF removed the Bahamas from the list of countries considered uncooperative in fighting money laundering. However, the November court ruling forced government regulators to petition the Supreme Court in order to freeze an account, a cumbersome process that experts say gives suspect enterprises extra time to pull their money out of the country ahead of an investigation.
In November 2001, the government handed over its files on Bank Al Taqwa Limited to the United States after U.S. government officials accused the financial institution of being a "financier of terror" that had funded Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden. The bank, a so-called brass-plate bank (a bank registered in the Bahamas but having no physical presence there), was closed down in April as part of a regulatory clamp down on such institutions. The government also revealed that one of the 19 terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks had conducted a brief flight-training exercise in May on the archipelago.
Citizens can change their government democratically. Constitutional guarantees regarding the right to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions are generally respected, as is the free exercise of religion. Human rights organizations have broad access to institutions and individuals.
The judicial system is headed by a supreme court and a court of appeals, with the right of appeal under certain circumstances to the Privy Council in London. There are local courts, and on the outer islands the local commissioners have magisterial powers. Despite antidrug legislation and a 1987 agreement with the United States to suppress the drug trade, there is evidence of drug-related corruption and money laundering, although less than during Prime Minister Lyndon Pindling's years. In 2001, the final stages were being completed for a court automation project designed to reduce delays in criminal cases, especially drug prosecutions, by means of a computerized court case management system. Significant strides were reported in reducing both the length of court cases and the backlog of criminal appeals.
Violent crime is a growing concern, particularly in Nassau, and has been a focus of the Ingraham government. Nongovernmental organizations have documented the increase in recent years of violent crime, as well as the occasional beating of prisoners--most often to extract confessions--and other abuses by police, including arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention. No independent agency exists to investigate reports of police abuse. In recent years, the Royal Bahamas Police Force has taken significant steps to reduce corruption in the force, including the establishment of new written procedures to limit the possibilities of unethical or illegal conduct. There are approximately 2,200 officers to police a total native population of approximately 300,000.
The police force has won plaudits for its key role in regional efforts to stem the drug trade. However, coordination with the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (PBDF) is plagued by operational problems and appears to reflect continuing government ambivalence about the role to be played by the RBDF in law enforcement.
The government is making significant efforts to relieve overcrowding of prisoners--the subject of serious criticism in the past by human rights organizations.
There are three daily and several weekly newspapers, all privately owned, and they express a variety of views on public issues, as do the government-run radio station and four privately owned radio broadcasters. Opposition politicians claim, however, that the state-run television service, Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas (ZNS), does not accord them the same coverage as that given to the ruling party. Full freedom of expression is constrained by strict libel laws. Unlike its predecessor, the Ingraham government has not made use of these laws against independent newspapers. It has amended media laws to allow for private ownership of broadcasting outlets.
Labor, business, and professional organizations are generally free from governmental interference. Unions have the right to strike, and collective bargaining is prevalent. Discrimination against the disabled and persons of Haitian descent persists. Between 25,000 and 40,000 Haitians reside illegally in the Bahamas. Tight citizenship laws and a strict work permit system leave Haitians with few rights. The influx has created social tension because of the strain on government services.
Because of its close proximity to the United States, the Bahamas is a popular transit point for illegal aliens attempting to enter the United States. Most immigrants seek to escape Cuba or Haiti, and many end up in the Bahamas.
Violence against women is a serious, widespread problem. Government crime statistics do not separate domestic violence from other incidents of crime. In 1999, the government and private women's organizations kicked off a public awareness campaign highlighting the problems of abuse and domestic violence. In 2000, the Department of Social Services created two shelters for battered women. Child abuse and neglect remain serious problems.