Guardian– A late-night stroll in the moonlight, then a sudden and fatal gunshot. What exactly happened between the socialite partner of the son of a billionaire Tory donor and a senior police officer in the early hours of last Friday in the resort of Mata Rocks has gripped the small Caribbean nation of Belize and turned into an international drama. It is now a major test for the country’s legal and criminal system.
This week a 32-year-old Canadian woman, Jasmine Hartin, was accused of the negligent manslaughter of a local police superintendent, Henry Jemmott. The case has attracted attention because Hartin is the partner of Andrew Ashcroft, son of Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative party donor and Belize’s most influential resident. Lord Ashcroft is a former Tory party deputy chairman, a one-time member of the House of Lords, and a billionaire.
Hartin is currently in Belize’s central jail awaiting a bail hearing next week. According to police, she met Jemmott in Ambergris Caye, Belize’s most northerly point, known for its beaches, coral reef and snorkelling. Hartin had earlier been at a party with Andrew Ashcroft in the town of San Pedro. Afterwards she went for a stroll with Jemmott, who was off duty.
The pair sat together on the end of a pier. Jemmott allegedly showed her his Glock service pistol. When she passed it back to him it accidentally went off, she told police, shooting Jemmott in the back of the head. The officer – a large man, 1.82 metres (6ft) tall, weighing more than 135kg (300lb) – rolled into the sea, dead. Hartin, who said she had been giving him a massage, was found distraught and covered in blood.
She was taken to the San Pedro jail and then transferred on Tuesday to the main prison. Her defence attorney, Godfrey Smith, a former foreign minister of Belize, has applied for bail. Prosecutors have objected, suggesting Hartin is a flight risk. During a hearing on Wednesday the judge in the case, Justice Herbert Lord, expressed his disapproval of the frenzied tabloid coverage. A further hearing is scheduled for 9 June.
Friends and relatives have described Jemmott as a tough and ambitious officer, who made his reputation cleaning up the drug-ridden Southside neighbourhood of Belize City. He was a father of six, a keen drummer and a likely future police commissioner, they said. “My brother loved life. He has a passion for his work. He loved his family as well. My brother loved people,” his sister Marie told 7 News, a local TV station.
Belize’s police commissioner, Chester Williams, said: “Personally I knew Mr Jemmott very well. We clashed at times but at the end of the day we both have the best interest of this department at heart. Mr Jemmott was one of those persons who really and truly challenged me. And that was his style – ambitious, assertive, but also a devoted family man.”
Williams has reportedly insisted Hartin will get no special favours. She could face up to five years in jail if convicted. But she could also receive a £7,000 fine, similar to the punishment meted out to drink-drivers. Discontent over the way the police have handled the investigation has bubbled up on social media. Locals have noted Hartin’s wealth and connections, and that she is white and her alleged victim was black.
The question now is whether justice can be dispassionately delivered, given Lord Ashcroft’s larger-than-life status in the one-time British colony, which won independence in 1981, to the displeasure of next-door Guatemala. Ashcroft is a joint UK and Belize national. He has made no comment. Instead, this week he has been promoting on Twitter his latest book, Red Knight, an unauthorised biography of the Labour leader, Keir Starmer.
Ashcroft is the owner of a bank in Belize. He played a key role in turning the country into an offshore financial centre – or what critics say is a tax haven. As in the UK, Ashcroft has involved himself in the politics of Belize, home to 440,000 people, many of them poor. Ashcroft has previously served as the country’s ambassador to the UN. He has a colonial-style home in Belize City.
He is intimately connected with the country’s politicians. He has at times clashed with them and funded them as well. In 2009 the then prime minister, Dean Barrow, said Ashcroft’s prolific business interests had “subjugated an entire nation”, following a row over the nationalisation of Belize’s telecoms company, which Ashcroft used to own. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing.
Barrow declared: “Lord Michael Ashcroft is an extremely powerful man. His net worth may well be equal to Belize’s entire GDP. He is nobody to cross. But this is our house, this is our country, here we are the masters. And with the full weight of that sovereignty we must now put an end to this disrespect, to this chance-taking, to new-age slavery.”
More recently Ashcroft has financed Belize’s cash-strapped police department. Last summer he donated equipment. In February he cut the ribbon on a new central station gym, together with the home affairs minister, Kareem Musa, and Williams, the commissioner, the Daily Mail reported. Ashcroft’s largesse extends to the prison where his son’s partner is being held. Its drugs rehabilitation wing is named after him.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Hartin is the director of lifestyle and experience at the Alaia Belize hotel group, a company run by Andrew Ashcroft. Andrew, who is 43, has lived in Belize for two decades. He and Hartin are not married, a spokesperson said, declining to comment further. Hartin may face a second charge after a small quantity of drugs were allegedly found at the scene, it has been reported.
Before a criminal trial and further lurid headlines, friends of the dead man have wondered how a night out under the stars could have ended in horror and bloodshed. “They have put a dagger in our hearts,” Jemmott’s sister Marie told local media this week. “We will pray for her as we are praying for his soul.”