Leaked documents have confirmed the United States Government’s fears that the Botswana Government deliberately placed British lawyer Gordon Bennett on a visa list with the sole aim of disabling Basarwa of Central Kalahari game Reserve (CKGR) in their fresh legal tussle with government.
Sunday Standard has turned up information showing that visa has become the latest weapon in Botswana’s arsenal after it rejected Bennett’s application with the sole aim of denying Basarwa legal representation in an upcoming case in which they intend to challenge the legality of a trust that government recently shoved down their throats.
The government decision is expected to broaden the international campaign against Botswana with the British Labour Party, and Forest People’s Programme (FPP) joining the fray on the side of Basarwa.
The British Labour Party Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Kate Osamor wrote a supporting letter for Bannett’s visa application while the British NGO, FPP is sponsoring him to be part of the Basarwa legal Defence team.
FPP advocates an alternative vision of how forests should be managed and controlled, based on respect for the rights of the peoples who know them best. FPP works with forest peoples in South America, Africa, and Asia, to help them secure their rights, build up their own organisations and negotiate with governments and companies as to how economic development and conservation are best achieved on their lands.
In a letter dated 1st March 2018 addressed to Bennett, one Charity Tshukudu writing on behalf of the Botswana High Commissioner in London, states that “Reference is made to your Business Visa application, dated 13th February 2018. By way of this letter, we write to inform that your application has been unsuccessful.”
Boko & Company Attorneys had invited Bennett to Botswana as he is the only attorney(due to his knowledge of indigenous people’s issues) best placed to give advice on the trust that government recently set up on behalf of Basarwa.
In a letter addressed to Bennett and dated 31st January 2018, attorney Aobakwe Monamo of Boko & Company states that “we think you are uniquely placed to help us provide this advice. The purpose of my letter therefore is to ask you to return to Botswana and to give this firm and the residents the benefit of your expertise in indigenous rights law and of your particular knowledge of the legal issues that pertain to the CKGR.”
In his application letter for a visa to Botswana’s High Commission in London, Bennett states that he is required by Ministerial order to obtain a visa to enter Botswana.
“The recent report in one of the Sunday papers about a community trust for the CKGR illustrates the difficulty in which the Basarwa find themselves. They urgently need advice on the terms of the trust document which I believe I am well qualified to give, but which they have not been able to obtain locally,” Bennett said.
He added that “As the US Department of State has noted in its most recent report on human rights in Botswana, the effect of the order made against me has been to “impede the ability of the Basarwa to respond to legal and advocacy matters”.
Monamo reminded Bennett that that between 2005 and 2006 and again 2009 and 2010 he was instructed by his law firm in two cases in the High Court in which the law firm acted for various residents of the CGKR. He added that since that time a number of legal issues have arisen on which the residents have now requested further legal advice.
“We have not discussed this matter with Survival International, with which we no longer have any dealings. I understand that you now work through an entirely independent organisation called Forest People’s Programme (FPP), and that an American foundation has agreed to reimburse FPP your travel and accommodation costs if you are granted a visa to enter Botswana,” said Monamo.
He added that “My firm will bear no responsibility for those costs or for your professional fees. Please feel free to produce this letter in support of your application for a visa.”
Monamo further stated that “For the avoidance of doubt I confirm that the sole purpose for which you have been invited to return to Botswana is to offer specialist legal advice to the CKGR residents. You have said that you have no wish to express any views on the politics of the CKGR or any other issues and this firm will not ask and does not expect you to do so.”
In his application letter, Bennet enclosed a formal application for this purpose, together with letters in support from a firm of attorneys in Gaborone and from representatives of the Botswana Khwedom Council and First Peoples of the Kalahari and a fee of ┬ú115.
Between 2004 and 2008, Bennett was lead counsel for the residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in a very long trial in the Botswana High Court, as well in another case about water rights in the CKGR which eventually went to the Court of Appeal.
“I have specialist knowledge of the law relating to the rights of indigenous peoples in general and to the rights of the inhabitants of the CKGR in particular. I would like to return to Botswana to provide legal advice to the attorneys who instructed me in my earlier cases, and to the many residents of the CKGR who have personally asked for my further assistance,” said Bennett.
He said Basarwa have done this in various ways, and in particular through a series of video interviews recorded inside the Reserve over the last few months which have been sent to him in London.
“As I am sure the Minister will agree, in principle the Basarwa should have the same right as any other citizen to the counsel of their choice. I respectfully ask him to grant my application,” said Bennett.
Bennett said since he had not been told why he now requires a visa to enter the country, it is difficult to know what else he can usefully say in support of his application.
“I will be more than happy to address any particular concern that the Minister may have if I am told what it is,” he said.
He also stated that “In the meantime I ought perhaps to mention that I no longer have any association with Survival International, which will play no part in my proposed visit and is not aware that I have made this application. I now work through an entirely separate entity called Forest Peoples Programme, which is incorporated in both the United Kingdom and Holland.”
He said the FPP has obtained the support of a trust foundation in the United States which has agreed to underwrite the costs of any trip that he is able to make.
Bennett said he appreciates that the future of the residents of the CKGR raises a number of politically sensitive issues, but do not intend to involve himself in those issues in any way.
“I would not propose to give any interviews to the press or to make any public statement. My sole purpose would be to give legal advice to those residents who have specifically asked for it. If you or the Minister require further information or would like to discuss my application generally, I will of course make myself available for this purpose,” said Bennett.
At the time of going to press, Head of Public Relations at the Ministry of Labour, Hannah Ramorogo, had not responded to Sunday Standard questionnaire.
In its report on Botswana’s human rights record, the US State Department stated that “A British citizen…who serves as an attorney for some Basarwa groups, was on a list of individuals from visa waiver countries who must apply for a visa to enter the country, impeding the group’s ability to respond to legal and advocacy matters involving the Basarwa.”
The report added that that “There were no government programs directly addressing discrimination against the Basarwa. With the exception of the 2006 court ruling, there were no demarcated cultural lands.”