The British Virgin Islands (BVI) has sworn in Natalio Wheatley as its new premier following the removal of Andrew Fahie, who was arrested on drug charges in the United States last week.
The swearing-in on Thursday came after Governor John Rankin said he had revoked Fahie’s mandate on the back of a no-confidence vote in the British overseas territory’s House of Assembly.
The BVI, one of the world’s leading offshore tax havens, currently faces intense scrutiny over corruption that may lead the United Kingdom to assume direct governance from London.
Wheatley, the former deputy premier who will now also hold the post of finance minister, said his appointment was “another important and necessary step in renewing our cherished democracy and reforming our institutions”.
“It is my hope that this day will be remembered as the day we began a new era of democratic governance,” he said.
Rankin, who is Queen Elizabeth II’s representative to the islands and its ultimate executive authority, has pledged to “work together in partnership” with Wheatley to improve the administration of the islands.
Need for ‘urgent action’ on governance
A commission of inquiry last week said the territory’s elected government should be dissolved and its constitution suspended for two years due to systematic dishonesty, effectively returning it to direct rule from the UK.
The commission’s report concluded that millions of dollars in state funds were being spent without proper processes. It added there was evidence of widespread abuse in appointments.
But Wheatley has in recent days said he wants to avoid direct rule by the UK, describing it as unacceptable and warning it would undermine the progress made by generations of people in the territory since 1950, when a local legislative body was launched.
Protests have also been staged on the islands against London’s retaking control.
The inquiry’s report was not directly linked to Fahie’s arrest, but British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said his detention demonstrated the importance of the investigation and the need for “urgent action”.
Fahie, 51, was arrested at a Miami airport along with the managing director of the territory’s Ports Authority, Oleanvine Maynard.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) says Fahie in recorded meetings with a confidential source from the Drug Enforcement Administration agreed to help smuggle cocaine through the territory in exchange for a portion of the proceeds. If convicted, he faces a minimum of nearly 20 years in prison.
Fahie’s lawyer has indicated he intends to plead not guilty to the charges when he is brought before a court later this month and called for his release on the grounds that he has diplomatic immunity in the US by virtue of being the elected leader of the BVI.
The DOJ says no such immunity exists because the overseas territory is not a sovereign nation.