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A group of US lawmakers pushed for the release of five Americans detained in Turks and Caicos on ammunition charges. (From Turks and Caicos Islands Governor's Office/Facebook via CNN Newsource)

Turks and Caicos slams US lawmaker’s remarks

May 24, 2024

By Maija Ehlinger, Michael Rios, Hira Humayun, Lauren Mascarenhas and Rebekah Riess, CNN

(CNN) — Turks and Caicos officials have slammed remarks from US lawmakers who traveled to the islands earlier this week to press for the release of the Americans who were arrested there – and could possibly face 12-year sentences.

In a House of Assembly address, the islands’ Premier Washington Misick said, “The accusation of congressman (Guy Reschenthaler) against the government and people of the Turks and Caicos Islands are nothing more than diabolic falsehoods.”

The comments come after Reschenthaler said in an interview with ABC News earlier this week that, “It’s to the point now, (where) every third week an American is being detained wrongfully and Turks and Caicos.” Reschenthaler told CNN this week that the prison on Turks and Caicos has been flagged by the UN for humanitarian concerns.

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

Three of the Americans – Michael Lee Evans, Bryan Hagerich and Tyler Wenrich – have pleaded guilty to possession of ammunition while traveling in Turks and Caicos, according to the Turks and Caicos government. Hagerich is set to be sentenced on Fridayat 10 a.m. ET, his lawyer Oliver Smith told CNN.

A fourth person, Ryan Tyler Watson, will have a hearing on May 28 to establish if he will enter a plea or go to trial, Smith said. A fifth person, Sharitta Shinese Grier, was arrested last week and is awaiting trial after making bail, according to Kimo Tynes​​​​, director of communications in the Office of the Premier and Public Policy.

The five Americans were each 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 40-island chain 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 the Americans get zero amount of jail time. They should be given time served and be sent home to the United States.”

Reschenthaler continued: “They were innocent mistakes. Any other nation would handle this with a fine in sending that person back to the country of origin. Here, that’s not happening.”

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

Evans is currently out on bail and was allowed to return to the US over a “severe” medical situation, but will be required to return to Turks and Caicos for his next hearing, Smith said.

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

The group of American lawmakers who traveled to Turks and Caicos 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, Sen. Markwayne Mullin, said in a statement on Monday, “Unfortunately, despite our willingness to work with Turks and Caicos officials to get our constituents home, we were not able to find a path forward today.”

Reschenthaler said the minimum 12-year sentence that ammunition charges carry is “completely unacceptable” and that the Americans brought the ammunition unknowingly.

Turks and Caicos Gov. Dileeni Daniel-Selvaratna said in a news release on Wednesday that Turks and Caicos values its relationship with the US and that the two countries work in “strong partnership to tackle shared threats in the region.”

The statement said Turks and Caicos did not target US citizens and called Reschenthaler’s remarks about the congressional delegation’s trip to the islands to meet with officials “highly regrettable.”

“His characterisation of our meeting is not one we recognise,” the statement read.

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

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

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

Premier: ‘Law must be applied even-handedly’

Misick said out of a total of 195 people sentenced for firearm-related offenses over the last six years, only seven were US citizens. The premier said Thursday no special treatment should be given to any group.

“The law must be applied even-handedly,” Misick said.

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

People who violate the law face a minimum 12 years imprisonment, the US Embassy in the Bahamas said in an April advisory.

While the US and Turks and Caicos work together in battling narcotics, terrorism and money laundering, “our laws and processes are not congruent,” Misick said. “We are a separate sovereignty. We respect the United States’ laws and we will never think to interfere in its operation.”

The government of Turks and Caicos, Misick said, would take “decisive and comprehensive action to preserve the safety and security of our nation,” adding while the country does not manufacture firearms or ammunition, the number of firearms finding its way to the islands has increased.

The appointed member of the opposition, Alvin Garland, expressed his concern over the American citizens who have been arrested in Turks and Caicos for possession of ammunition over the last six months.

Garland said the islands’ governor is correct in not interfering with the ongoing court cases in order to adhere to the government’s separation of powers, but added he believes most, if not all, of the cases involving American tourists will fall into the “exceptional circumstances category” and sentences could be shorter than the mandatory 12-year minimum.

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

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