| 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices|
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, February 25, 2000
Belize is a parliamentary democracy with a constitution enacted in 1981 upon independence from the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister, a cabinet of ministers, and a legislative assembly govern the country. The Governor General represents Queen Elizabeth II in the largely ceremonial role of head of state. Prime Minister Said Musa's People's United Party (PUP) holds 26 of the 29 seats in the House of Representatives. The Government generally respects the constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary; however, at times the judiciary is subject to political influence.
The Police Department has primary responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The Belize Defense Force (BDF) is responsible for external security but, when deemed appropriate by civilian authorities, may be tasked to assist the police department. Both the police and the BDF report to the Minister of National Security and are responsible to and controlled by civilian authorities. There were reports of abuse by the police.
The economy is primarily agricultural, although tourism has become the principal source of foreign exchange earnings. The agricultural sector is heavily dependent upon preferential access to export markets for sugar and for bananas. The Government favors free enterprise and generally encourages investment, although domestic investors are given preferential treatment over foreign investors in a number of key economic sectors. Preliminary estimates of 1999 gross domestic product growth placed it at 3 to 4 percent in real terms. Annual per capita income was $2,647.
The Government generally respected many of its citizens' human rights; however, there were problems in several areas. Principal human rights abuses include an instance of extrajudicial killing, occasional brutality and use of excessive force by the police when making arrests, poor prison conditions, allegations of arbitrary arrest and detention, lengthy pretrial detention, political influence on and interference with the judiciary, and judicial limits on freedom of the press. Violence and discrimination against women, abuse of children, and employer mistreatment of undocumented workers in the banana industry also were problems.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no political killings by the security forces; however, there was one instance of extrajudicial killing. In another incident, a BDF soldier killed a Guatemalan national in what was determined to be self-defense.
On September 22, 38-year-old Daniel Tillett died while in police custody, after being arrested for fighting in public. Although the police initially claimed that he had passed out in his own vomit and died, a cellmate told family members that police repeatedly beat Tillett and forced his head into a toilet. An autopsy revealed that Tillett had a fractured skull, water in his lungs, and a ruptured liver. The police internal affairs and discipline division questioned seven police officers following Tillett's death. As a result of the investigation, the Director of Public Prosecutions is pursuing a murder charge against one officer, who remains in police custody; the police temporarily suspended a second officer, who awaited a final disciplinary ruling at year's end.
The Prime Minister appointed an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the June 12 fatal shooting of Guatemalan national Mateo Paiz Ramirez by a BDF corporal. The Commission ruled the soldier had shot Ramirez in self-defense.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The Constitution forbids torture or other inhuman punishment; however, the police occasionally used excessive force when making arrests. The Government's newly appointed Ombudsman said in a press interview that the majority of complaints that his office receives are allegations of police misconduct and brutality. At year's end, the ombudsman's office had 15 open cases involving complaints against the police.
The Police Department's internal affairs and discipline section, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Ombudsman's office, and on occasion, special independent commissions appointed by the Prime Minister investigate allegations of abuse by officials.
On April 26, two Guatemalan men, Hector Balcarcel and Ricardo Guzman, were detained at the Guatemala-Belize border. They were taken into police custody. Balcarcel alleged that he was detained arbitrarily for 5 days and tortured. His report to the Human Rights Commission and the Guatemalan embassy claimed that he was stripped, handcuffed, burned with a lighter and habanero peppers on his genitals, beaten with a stick, and forced to drink his own urine. After an investigation, the police determined that these allegations were false; however, an internal review was underway at year's end of the allegation that the original investigation was a whitewash.
On October 14, plainclothes policemen shot and wounded Curtis Flowers, who allegedly brandished a toy weapon. Eyewitnesses confirmed the police account, and the shooting was ruled to be self-defense.
On October 26, the police questioned Luis Arturo Villavicencio Alas, a Guatemalan citizen residing in a border town in Belize and searched his home for drugs. Villavicencio alleged that the police beat him; the Police Commissioner ordered an investigation, and a police tribunal fined the officer.
In June the authorities arrested a police constable and charged him with extortion and corruptly soliciting a reward. They relieved him of duty and at year's end, he was scheduled to stand trial in the Supreme Court.
Prison conditions are poor. Conditions at the Hattieville Department of Corrections--the country's only prison--have deteriorated continually since it opened in 1993. Although designed to house 500 inmates, it currently houses 1,023 prisoners, or approximately 6 prisoners per 10-by-12 foot cell. The majority of prison accommodations do not have showers or toilets. Instead, inmates are provided with 5-gallon buckets. The prison psychiatrist (a newly established position) provides mental health services for inmates. The prison includes a separate facility for women; however, the administrative section of the prison is situated nearby and as a result, guards and male prisoners occasionally roam about this area. There is no separate facility for inmates with mental illnesses. First-time offenders are housed in the same building as those who commit capital crimes. Noncitizens constitute approximately 15 to 20 percent of the prison population. There are rare reports of human rights abuses at the prison in the form of physical brutality by prison wardens. Incidents of gang and drug related violence in the prison are on the rise. A new superintendent of prisons was named to combat these and other problems.
The Government took steps to curb recidivism and focus on rehabilitation. The Youth Enhancement Agency (YEA) houses over 2,100 youths between the ages of 13 and 25, who participate in rehabilitation and job training programs. Increasingly, youthful offenders are transferred from the main prison to the YEA facilities. A job-training program at a citrus farm employs approximately 50 inmates. There is a time-off program for good behavior.
The Government permits prison visits by independent human rights monitors.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention, and the Government observes these provisions to a degree; however, accusations of arbitrary arrest and detention were frequent. Two Guatemalan citizens alleged that they were detained and tortured in April (see Section 1.c.).
The law requires the police to inform a detainee of the cause of detention within 48 hours of arrest and to bring the person before a court to be charged formally within 72 hours. In practice, the authorities normally inform detainees immediately of the charges against them. Bail is granted in all but the most serious cases. In cases involving narcotics, the police cannot grant bail, but a magistrate's court may do so after a full hearing. There are persistent allegations that security forces hold detainees for 72 hours and release them, but upon release, arrest them again. Many detainees cannot afford bail, and backlogs in the docket often cause considerable delays and postponement of hearings, resulting in an overcrowded prison, and at times prolonged incarceration before trial.
The Constitution forbids exile, and it does not occur in practice.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respects this provision in practice; however, the appearance of judicial independence from the executive branch is compromised because some foreign judges and the Director of Public Prosecutions must negotiate renewal of their contracts with the Government and thus may be vulnerable to political interference. In February the Government abruptly fired Supreme Court Justice Manuel Sosa, arbitrarily voiding his 11th-hour appointment in August 1998 by the ousted United Democratic Party (UDP) government of Manuel Esquivel, claiming that the PUP--then in the opposition--had not been consulted appropriately as the Constitution specified. In June the Government appointed Sosa to the Court of Appeals.
The judiciary consists of the magistrate's courts, the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and a family court that handles cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and child support. Those convicted by either a magistrate's court or the Supreme Court may appeal to the Court of Appeal. In exceptional cases, including those resulting in a capital sentence, the convicted party may make a final appeal to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom.
Persons accused of civil or criminal offenses have constitutional rights to presumption of innocence, protection against self-incrimination, defense by counsel, a public trial, and appeal. Legal counsel for indigent defendants is provided by the State only for capital crimes. In April the Government appointed an attorney to the Legal Aid Center to improve and strengthen legal aid services to the public.
Trial by jury is mandatory in capital cases.
Trials in cases that come before the family court generally are private. The convicted party in family court also may appeal to the Supreme Court. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial unless the opposing party fears for his or her safety. In such a case, the court grants interim provisions under which both parties are addressed individually during a 5-day period.
There are lengthy trial backlogs in the judicial system. One factor commonly cited is the low pay offered to judges, resulting in high turnover rates. In addition, an inordinate number of significant narcotics-related cases are taking years to resolve. In these cases, defendants often are released on minimal bail payments. In April two retired judges were named to the Supreme Court in a temporary capacity to help reduce backlogs.
There were no reports of political prisoners.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The Constitution prohibits such practices, government authorities generally respect these prohibitions, and violators are subject to legal action. However, there were several cases in which the previous government exercised its power under the right of eminent domain in an arbitrary manner. Such cases take years to resolve in the courts.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and the Press
The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press but also permits the authorities to make "reasonable provisions" in the interests of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health. These provisions include forbidding any citizen to question the validity of the financial disclosure statements submitted by public officials. Anyone who questions these statements orally or in writing outside a rigidly prescribed procedure is subject to a fine of up to $2,500 (bz$5,000), or imprisonment of up to 3 years, or both.
A wide range of viewpoints is presented publicly, usually without government interference, in seven privately owned weekly newspapers, three of which are affiliated directly with major political parties. There is no daily press. All newspapers are subject to the constraints of libel laws.
Since the first privately owned commercial radio station began broadcasting in 1990, other stations have been established, broadening the audience's choices. In addition to these local stations, there are two British military stations that broadcast news directly from London. Popular radio call-in programs are lively and feature open criticism of and comments on government and political matters.
There are eight privately owned television broadcasting stations, including several cable networks in Belize City and the major towns. The Government's Belize Information Service issues press releases and maintains an Internet web site. Two independent television stations produce local news and feature programs. The Belize Broadcasting Authority (BBA) regulates broadcasting and asserts its right to preview certain broadcasts, such as those with political content, and to delete any defamatory or personally libelous material from political broadcasts. In a controversial move, the BBA granted a narrow-range frequency to the opposition UDP radio station, which limited its broadcasts to the greater Belize City metropolitan area.
The law provides for academic freedom, and the Government respects it in practice.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the Government respects it in practice. Political parties and other groups with political objectives freely hold rallies and mass meetings. The organizers of public meetings must obtain a permit 36 hours in advance of the meetings; such permits are not denied for political reasons and are granted routinely in practice.
The Constitution permits citizens to form and join associations of their choosing, both political and nonpolitical, and the Government respects these provisions in practice.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.
The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations. In 1997 the UNHCR liaison office ceased all funding for the Government's Refugee Department, which previously had relied upon the UNHCR to pay all program costs, including salaries. The Refugee Department officially closed on January 1; all remaining functions are handled through a small refugee desk within the Department of Immigration and Nationality.
The previous administration appointed members to an eligibility committee to review applications for asylum. The committee, which included a UNHCR representative, met on a weekly basis. In 1998 the Government turned down 30 requests for asylum. After the 1998 elections, no applications for asylum were made. There is no legislation that formalizes the asylum process. The Government last honored the principle of first asylum in the case of four persons in 1995.
In the wake of the civil conflicts in Central America in the 1980's, over 40,000 predominantly Hispanic migrants came to Belize, many of them entering illegally and living without documentation. In May the Government instituted a 6-week amnesty initiative whereby undocumented migrants were eligible to obtain legal residency, provided: They lived in Belize continuously for 4 years, married a Belizean citizen or had a stable common-law association, had Belizean children, or, if female, were at least 4 months pregnant. In response to UNHCR concerns, the Government amended its process, reducing the residency requirement from 10 to 5 years, to allow these migrants to obtain citizenship. The amnesty is expected to benefit about 5,000 UNHCR-registered asylees, as well as 13,000 others. Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change their Government
Belize is a democracy governed by a national assembly with executive direction from a cabinet of ministers headed by Prime Minister Said Musa. The law requires national elections every 5 years. The Government changed hands in August 1998 when the PUP won 26 of 29 seats in the House of Representatives in free and fair elections.
All elections are held by secret ballot, and suffrage is universal for citizens 18 years of age and older. National political parties include the People's United Party, the United Democratic Party, and the National Alliance for Belizean Rights (NABR). The country's ethnic diversity is reflected in each party's membership. No laws impede participation of women in politics; however, they are underrepresented in electoral politics due to both tradition and socioeconomic factors. Voters elected 2 women to the 29-seat House of Representatives, and the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, both appointed, are women. Women also hold a number of other appointive offices, including four of nine senate seats and one cabinet position.
There are no laws impeding participation by indigenous people or minority groups in politics. There are Mestizo, Creole, Maya, and Garifuna representatives in Parliament.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRCB), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) affiliated with regional human rights organizations and partly funded by the UNHCR, operates without government restriction on a wide range of issues, including migrant and agricultural workers' rights and cases of alleged police abuse. The HRCB publishes human rights complaints and urges police and other governmental bodies to act upon them. The HRCB gained prominence through media reports about its workshops and seminars that educate citizens about human rights. International human rights groups operate freely as well. Government officials generally are cooperative and responsive to their activities.
On July 13, the Government appointed the country's first Ombudsman. The Ombudsman's office receives a daily average of half a dozen complaints. The Ombudsman said in a press interview that the majority of complaints that his office receives are allegations of police misconduct and brutality. At year's end, the ombudsman's office had 15 open cases involving complaints against the police (see Section 1.c.).
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
Belize is a multiracial, multiethnic country, and the Government actively promotes tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. Discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds is illegal and rare, although ethnic tension, particularly resentment of recently arrived Central American and Asian immigrants, continued to be a problem. The Government continues to reserve certain professions for citizens, granting permits and licenses to noncitizens only in specific cases. These occupations include fishing, souvenir manufacturing, sightseeing tours, accounting, insurance, real estate, and legal services.
Violence against women is a problem. A shelter for battered women offers short-term housing. The Belize Organization for Women and Development, an NGO, advises women on their rights and provides counseling. Laws prohibit rape and sexual harassment, but few offenders are charged and convicted. In October Parliament passed a law specifically prohibiting spousal rape.
There were reports of trafficking in women for purposes of prostitution (see Section 6.f.).
Despite constitutional provisions for equality, women face social and economic prejudice. Women find it more difficult than men to obtain business and agricultural financing and other resources. Most employed women are concentrated in female-dominated occupations with traditionally low status and wages. The Women's Bureau in the Ministry of Human Development, Women, and Civil Society is charged with developing programs to improve the status of women. A number of officially registered women's groups work closely with various government ministries in promoting social awareness programs. Women have access to education and are active in all spheres of national life, but relatively few hold top managerial positions. However, women head the Belize Business Bureau, Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Belize Citrus Growers Association, several prominent environmental NGO's, and the Belize Rotary Club. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, but female workers often earn less than men in similar jobs. There are no legal impediments to women owning or managing land or other real property.
Education is compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 14. After children finish their primary education, they may enter a secondary school, the government-run apprenticeship program, or a vocational institution. However, these programs have room for only about one-half of the children finishing primary school; competition for spaces in secondary school is intense. Education is nominally free, but various school, book, and uniform fees put education out of reach for many poor children.
The Family Services Division in the Ministry of Human Development, Women, and Civil Society is devoted primarily to children's issues. The division coordinates programs for children who are victims of domestic violence, advocates remedies in specific cases before the family court, conducts public education campaigns, investigates cases of trafficking in children (see Section 6.f.), and works with the NGO's and the United Nations Children's Fund to promote children's welfare. The National Committee for Families and Children includes a representative from the Ministry of Human Development, Women, and Civil Society.
During the year, the public became more aware of the Families and Children Act, which was passed in late 1998. The National Organization for the Prevention of Child Abuse (NOPCA) published a handbook for the public that outlined in plain language provisions of the act. The act allows authorities legally to remove a child from an abusive home environment. The act removes the limit placed on child support a parent must pay, and it allows men to file for support, as well as women. It requires parents to maintain and support a child until he or she reaches the age of 18, compared with the previous law's mandate of support up to the age of 16. The new act also accepts DNA testing as legal proof of paternity and maternity. It requires that all adoptions be reported to the Human Development Department of the Ministry of Human Development, Women, and Civil Society and that prospective parents be screened before they may adopt a child. The NOPCA instituted a nationwide telephone help line to encourage discourse and reduce abuse.
People with Disabilities
The law does not specifically provide for accessibility for disabled persons or prohibit job discrimination against them. The Government's Disability Services Unit, as well as a number of NGO's, such as the Belize Association of and for Persons with Disabilities and the Belize Center for the Visually Impaired, provide assistance to physically disabled persons. Disabled children have access to government special education facilities, although the requirements to enter such programs are strict.
Among the country's indigenous people, the Mopan and Ke'kchi are grouped under the general term Maya, although their leaders say they should identified as the Masenal, meaning "common people." The Maya have sought official recognition of their communal claims to land, but the Government has been reluctant to single out one ethnic group for special consideration. The Government has designated 77,000 acres as 9 separate Mayan reserves; however, Mayan leaders purport that the Maya have an ancestral claim to a total of 500,000 acres. Several Mayan organizations have filed suit to force the Government to recognize the Mayas' ancestral land rights and to prevent further granting of logging concessions on the disputed land.
In October the Government introduced legislation to establish the Southern Regional Development Corporation (SRDC), which would promote development in districts of the country that are heavily populated by Maya. Indigenous leaders opposed the first draft of the bill because they wanted their land claims addressed first and because they believed that their communities were represented insufficiently on the SRDC board. At year's end, the legislation was still pending; however, on November 23, the Cabinet approved the regional development plan that the corporation is to implement.
The Maya have formed cultural councils and other groups to advance their interests, sometimes with the collaboration of NGO's concerned with environmental and indigenous issues. In 1998 one Mayan council sought and won greater involvement by the Mayan community in an internationally funded highway project in the southern part of the country, the location of many Mayan communities. In response to Mayan objections to strip logging, the Government created a broad-based oversight committee to scrutinize the loggers' compliance with strict environmental statutes.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
By statute and in practice, workers are free to establish and join trade unions. Eleven independent unions, whose members constitute approximately 11 percent of the labor force, represent a cross-section of white-collar, blue-collar, and professional workers, including most civil service employees. However, several of these unions are inactive. The Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Public Services, and Labor recognizes unions after they file with the Registrar's Office. The law empowers members to draft the by-laws and the constitutions of their unions, and they are free to elect officers from among the membership at large. Unions that choose not to hold elections may act as representatives for their membership, but the national Trade Union Congress permits only unions that hold free and annual elections of officers to join its ranks. Both law and precedent effectively protect unions against dissolution or suspension by administrative authority.
The law permits unions to strike and does not require them to give notice before going on strike.
Although no unions are affiliated officially with political parties, several are sympathetic to one or the other of the two main parties (the PUP and the UDP).
Unions freely exercise the right to form federations and confederations and affiliate with international organizations.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law provides for collective bargaining and unions practice it freely throughout the country. Employers and unions set wages in free negotiations, or, more commonly, employers simply establish them. The Labor Commissioner or his representative acts as a mediator in deadlocked collective bargaining negotiations between labor and management, offering nonbinding counsel to both sides. Historically, the Commissioner's guidance has been accepted voluntarily. However, should either union or management choose not to accept the Commissioner's decision, both are entitled to a legal hearing of the case, provided that it is linked to some provision of civil or criminal law.
The Constitution prohibits antiunion discrimination both before and after a union is registered. Unions may organize freely, but the law does not require employers to recognize a union as a bargaining agent. For example, although the registered Banana Workers Union actively advocated worker rights, it was not recognized by the banana industry's growers association due to low membership. Some employers have been known to block union organization by terminating the employment of key union sympathizers, usually on grounds purportedly unrelated to union activities. Effective redress is extremely difficult in such situations. Technically, a worker can file a complaint with the Labor Department, but in practice it is virtually impossible to prove that a termination was due to union activity.
The Labor Code applies in the country's export processing zones (EPZ's). There are no unions in the EPZ's, reflecting the general weakness of organized labor in the country.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The Constitution and laws forbid forced, compulsory or bonded labor, including that performed by children, and generally it is not known to occur; however, there were reports that women were trafficked for the purpose of forced prostitution (see Section 6.f.).
d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment
The minimum age for employment is 14 years, or 17 years for employment near hazardous machinery. Inspectors from the Departments of Labor and Education enforce this regulation. During the year, truancy officers, who historically have borne the brunt of the enforcement burden, were more active. The law requires children between the ages of 5 and 14 to attend school, but there are many truants and dropouts. Laws prohibit forced and bonded labor by children, and the Government effectively enforces this prohibition; however, there were infrequent reports of trafficking in children for purposes of prostitution (see Sections 6.c. and 6.f.).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum wage is $1.12 (bz$2.25), except in export industries, where it is $1.00 (bz$2.00) per hour. For domestic workers in private households and shop assistants in stores where liquor is not consumed, the rate is $0.87 (bz$1.75) per hour. The minimum wage law does not cover workers paid on a piecework basis. The Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Public Services, and Labor is charged with enforcing the legal minimum wage, which generally is respected in practice. The minimum wage as sole source of income does not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Most salaried workers receive more than the minimum wage.
The law sets the normal workweek at no more than 6 days or 45 hours. It requires payment for overtime work, 13 public holidays, an annual vacation of 2 weeks, and sick leave for up to 16 days. An employee is eligible for severance pay provided that he was employed continuously for at least 5 years.
The exploitation of undocumented Hispanic workers, particularly young service workers and possibly some agricultural workers, continued to be a problem. Banana farm owners slowly are moving the housing they provide for their workers away from the fields where poisonous pesticides are sprayed. Health clinics in the region report that the most frequently treated ailments are pesticide-related skin conditions. Company-provided housing often lacks electricity and water. The Government, the HRCB, and other concerned citizens all focus on this problem. A patchwork of health and safety regulations covers numerous industries, and the Labor Department in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Public Services, and Labor enforces these regulations to varying degrees. Enforcement is not universal, and the ministries commit their limited inspection and investigative resources principally to urban and more accessible rural areas where labor, health, and safety complaints have been registered. Workers have the legal right to remove themselves from a dangerous workplace situation without jeopardy to continued employment.
f. Trafficking in Persons
Although the law does not specifically prohibit trafficking in persons, it does proscribe trafficking in women with the intent that the woman may become an inmate of or frequent a brothel. Nonetheless, there were reports in 1998 that one or more dance hall owners have recruited women from neighboring countries, promising them jobs as dancers, waitresses, or domestics. Upon arrival, the employer allegedly takes their passports, forces them to engage in prostitution, and holds their wages. The police have investigated, but had not made any arrests by year's end, nor had the Government taken any other steps to address this practice.
The Ministry of Human Development, Women, and Civil Society, the police department, and--in cases involving migrant children--the Ministry of National Security and Immigration investigate and attempt to remedy cases that involve trafficking in children (see Section 5). According to a spokesperson from the Human Development Department, there were rare reports of trafficking in children for the purpose of prostitution; most involved migrant children.
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