Turks and Caicos criticizes US lawmaker’s remarks ahead of American’s sentencing on munitions charges


Turks and Caicos officials have criticized comments by U.S. lawmakers who traveled to the islands earlier this week to push for the release of Americans who were arrested there and could possibly face 12-year sentences.

In a speech to the House of Assembly, the islands’ prime minister, Washington Misick, said: “Congressman (Guy Reschenthaler)’s accusation against the government and people of the Turks and Caicos Islands are nothing more than diabolical falsehoods.” .

The comments come after Reschenthaler said in an interview with ABC News earlier this week that “the time has come when every three weeks an American is unjustly detained in the Turks and Caicos Islands.” Reschenthaler told CNN this week that the Turks and Caicos prison has been singled out by the UN on humanitarian grounds.

A US congressional delegation traveled to the islands to meet with officials earlier this week to push for the release of detained Americans accused of ammunition possession.

Three of the Americans – Michael Lee Evans, Bryan Hagerich and Tyler Wenrich – pleaded guilty to possessing ammunition while traveling in the Turks and Caicos Islands, according to the Turks and Caicos government. Hagerich will be sentenced on Friday at 10 a.m. ET, his lawyer Oliver Smith told CNN.

A fourth person, Ryan Tyler Watson, will have a hearing on May 28 to determine whether he will plead guilty or go to trial, Smith said. A fifth person, Sharitta Shinese Grier, was arrested last week and is awaiting trial after posting bail, according to Kimo Tynes, director of communications for the Office of the Prime Minister and Public Policy.

The five Americans were arrested in recent months in the British Overseas Territory, where carrying firearms is prohibited. Each is accused of bringing various amounts of ammunition to the chain of 40 islands in the tropical Atlantic Ocean, southeast of the Bahamas.

On Monday, Reschenthaler told CNN’s Manu Raju that he wants to see a “resolution here where Americans don’t get any jail time. “They should be given time served and sent home to the United States.”

Reschenthaler continued: “They were innocent mistakes. Any other nation would handle this with a fine by sending that person back to the home country. “That’s not happening here.”

Americans face a fine for violating the government’s firearms ordinance, in addition to possible 12-year sentences, but the court could impose lighter sentences if it determines there are exceptional circumstances related to the crime, according to Smith, who also represents Evans.

Evans is currently out on bail and was allowed to return to the United States due to a “serious” medical situation, but will be asked to return to Turks and Caicos for his next hearing, Smith said.

The court is also expected to rule on a legal challenge Smith filed over the constitutionality of the legislation as it relates to how defendants can be sentenced, according to Smith.

The group of US lawmakers who traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands this week to push for the charges to be dropped said the arrested Americans had the ammunition in their luggage “inadvertently.”

One of the US lawmakers, Senator Markwayne Mullin, said in a statement on Monday: “Unfortunately, despite our willingness to work with Turks and Caicos officials to bring our constituents home, we were unable to find a way forward today. “.

Reschenthaler said the 12-year minimum sentence that comes with the ammunition charges is “completely unacceptable” and that the Americans brought the ammunition without knowing it.

Turks and Caicos Governor Dileeni Daniel-Selvaratna said in a news release Wednesday that Turks and Caicos values ​​its relationship with the United States and that the two countries work in a “strong partnership to address shared threats.” in the region”.

The statement said Turks and Caicos was not targeting U.S. citizens and called Reschenthaler’s comments about the congressional delegation’s trip to the islands to meet with officials “very regrettable.”

“We do not recognize your characterization of our meeting,” the statement read.

“Our discussions were professional and respectful with a focus on clarifying the legal position and well-being of the people,” the statement continued.

The governor added that the mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years for possession of firearms and/or ammunition is in place to protect those on the islands and that the law grants discretion in “exceptional circumstances” for the judge to impose a sentence reduced.

No U.S. citizen has received the 12-year sentence to date, according to the statement.

Prime Minister: “The law must be applied impartially”

Misick said that of a total of 195 people convicted of firearms-related crimes in the past six years, only seven were U.S. citizens. The prime minister said Thursday that no group should be given special treatment.

“The law must be applied impartially,” Misick said.

Bringing firearms or ammunition, including stray bullets, into the Turks and Caicos Islands without prior permission from police is “strictly prohibited,” according to a statement from its government, CNN previously reported.

People who violate the law face a minimum sentence of 12 years in prison, the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas said in an April notice.

While the United States and Turks and Caicos work together to combat narcotics, terrorism and money laundering, “our laws and processes are not consistent,” Misick said. “We are a separate sovereignty. “We respect the laws of the United States and will never think of interfering in its operation.”

The Turks and Caicos government, Misick said, would take “decisive and comprehensive measures to preserve the security of our nation,” adding that while the country does not manufacture firearms or ammunition, the number of firearms reaching the islands has increased. increase.

Opposition Designated Member Alvin Garland expressed concern about American citizens who have been arrested in the Turks and Caicos Islands for possession of ammunition over the past six months.

Garland said the islands’ governor is right not to interfere with ongoing court cases to comply with the government’s separation of powers, but added that he believes most, if not all, cases involving American tourists will fall into “exceptional circumstances”. category” and sentences could be shorter than the mandatory minimum of 12 years.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Manu Raju, Fabiana Chaparro and Amanda Musa contributed to this report.

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