Attorney-General Guus Schram “Embed the Prosecutor’s Office in a network with countless others”

POSTED: 03/17/14 6:33 PM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – “The impression that cases are shelved is something I want to adjust. We will have to work faster and act more boldly.” With the arrival of Guus Schram as the successor of Dick Piar as the attorney-general for St. Maarten, Curacao and the BES-islands the winds of change have started blowing softly. “I am not the attorney-general for Curacao who is also responsible for St. Maarten,” he says during an early morning interview at the office of Solicitor-General Taco Stein in Simpson Bay. “To me, St. Maarten and Curacao are equally important.”

Schram’s predecessor Dick Piar announced his departure in August of last year. “The vacancy became available in October, and in January the ministry took a decision. That procedure went reasonably fast,” says Schram, adding that there were not many candidates to fill the position.

“I consider this as a fantastic challenge. I did not jump into it just like that. Maybe I think that I will be a good attorney-general, but others may have a different opinion. So I tested the waters a bit in the Netherlands before I decided to apply. I am bringing along experience that will serve me well here. I worked 10 years for the national prosecutor’s office; it deals with organized crime and large integrity-investigations.”

Schram says that his primary focus is on directing investigations. “There is a lot to be gained from doing investigations as efficient as possible. That means of course that we have to make choices and that is not always easy. In the end, we have to give account to the court and to the community.”

The new attorney-general started in his job on March 1. “I came here seeing things from a Dutch perspective and I am now here to talk with as many people as possible. I will have to understand the St. Maarten line of approach. Only then will it be possible to make choices. I do not want to do that from my old perspective.”

Those choices refer to specific investigations, but Schram has a pretty good idea about St. Maarten’s priorities in general. “The financial and integrity field,” he says. “Those are highly complicated investigations. We have to find a good answer as to how we are going to handle them, and we have to explain better why they take so long.”

Schram is not familiar with the Buncamper-Molanus case from December 2010, but he grasps the essence of the current stage it is in: the former minister had to step down – and paid the political price – but a possible criminal investigation is still hanging over her head. “The prosecutor’s office has a duty to give people the opportunity to defend themselves against accusations in a public court hearing,” Schram says. “Apart from the reasonable term there is also a duty to take care of these things. You cannot just explain it in legal terms. Sometimes there are very good reasons why a case takes a long time, but you must be able to explain this. If we are not able to do that, we will simply have to work faster.”

Schram has adjusted his thinking about St. Maarten after his arrival. “In the Netherlands they put all the islands – Curacao, St. Maarten and the BES-islands – in one bag. I thought that way too, before I applied for this job. But I have dropped the idea that the problems in St. Maarten are the same as they are in Curacao. St. Maarten has different problems. My task as attorney-general is different here from Curacao, but I am still searching for the right approach.”

Asked for specifics about the differences between St. Maarten and Curacao, Schram mentions the media landscape, the makeup of the population and politics. But most of all, the following stands out: “I was shocked by the severe violence in Curacao. I speak with many people here to assess the needs of the community. There is a lot of concern about integrity and corruption in St. Maarten. That plays in Curacao too,  but the violence is always there.”

Another point of attention is human trafficking. The Ministers of Justice of the Netherlands, St. Maarten, Curacao and Aruba signed a covenant in 2011 to get tough on human trafficking, but the reality is that St. Maarten’s prostitution policy condones this. Women who end up in prostitution through human trafficking are the victims of “modern slavery,” Schram says. “I want to take a good hard look at those constructions whereby the practice is condoned.”

At the same time, the attorney-general says, the prosecutor’s office is not able to fight crime alone. “I want to work with many more partners than the traditional ones from the judicial chain. Nobody is able to stop crime alone. I want to embed the prosecutor’s office in a network with for instance the ministry of justice, but also with bars and restaurants, schools, the media and countless others. We all have the same interests.”

Schram acknowledges that St. Maarten has an “execution-problem” – a reference to convictions that are not executed. The 2012 annual report of the prosecutor’s office mentions 150 of such cases. “St. Maarten also does not do enough with fines – they are not collected. That undermines the organization of the prosecutor’s office but it also undermines the constitutional state. Convictions that have become irrevocable must be executed. We all want that, but there is of course the matter of cell shortage.”

Schram says that there will always be a shortage of cell capacity. “We have to make sure that the right people end up in the cells we do have,” he says. There are alternatives, like electronic ankle bracelets. “I do not have the exact figures but ankle bracelets are on average cheaper than a prison cell. The system also makes re-socialization easier.”

The new attorney-general started in his job on March 1 on a permanent contract, so it is not a given that he will leave after a set number of years, “I have to keep looking critically at myself. I must be able to offer added value,” he says. “I want the prosecutor’s office to make the step towards a more modern role. When there is a need for a different approach sometime in the future, I will have to make space for someone else.”

Unlike his predecessor Dick Piar – a Curacaolenean – Schram has no ties in the Caribbean. “It is an advantage that I am not tied to anything or anybody. I will be able to take decisions objectively, based on arguments with respect to content. On the other hand, I am less familiar with the community here than a St. Maartener. But I will be the attorney-general for both countries. St. Maarten and Curacao are equally important to me.”

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