ST JOHN’S, Antigua, Thursday April 21, 2011 – The American authorities’ shutdown of three overseas-based online poker websites has triggered not only criticism from Antigua and Barbuda, but possibly more aggressive action by the Caribbean island to force the US to settle the online gaming dispute the two countries are still fighting.
Finance Minister Harold Lovell expressed disappointment in what he described as the latest effort by American authorities to shut off competition in remote gaming, and further criticized the country for violating international law.
His comments follow the US federal authorities’ shut down of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker last Friday, and the charging of 11 people with illegal gambling and bank fraud.
“I am concerned that at this point in time United States authorities continue to prosecute non-domestic suppliers of remote gaming services in clear contravention of international law,” Lovell said.
“I am not aware of any other situation where a member of the World Trade Organization has subjected persons to criminal prosecution under circumstances where the WTO has expressly ruled that to do so is in breach of an International treaty.”
Antigua’s legal counsel in the WTO matter, Mark Mendel, had a similar reaction.
“The WTO ruled that these kinds of laws criminalizing the provision of remote gaming services are contrary to the obligations of the United States under the WTO agreements. The United States, being a very heavy user of the WTO rules to its own benefit, simply cannot continue to prosecute persons for engaging in legitimate International commerce,” he said.
Lawyer: US engaging in protectionism
Observing recent initiatives to authorize remote gaming in various American states, and the proliferation of state sanctioned gambling in the US generally, Mendel further argued that “what the United States has attempted to cloak as a moral issue is now clearly nothing but economic protectionism at its worst”.
He said that rather than engaging with Antigua and the world gaming community to reach a reasonable accommodation on this relatively new but now globalised form of economic commerce, the US has instead determined to protect its domestic gaming interests, regardless of international legal obligations.
“This is very hard to reconcile not only with its pronouncements regarding the imperative of other countries to strictly observe their WTO trade obligations but also with stated official United States government policy of adherence to the rule of law,” Mendel said.
A statement issued by the Antigua and Barbuda Government said that having won a hard-fought dispute at the WTO against the United States some years ago over laws criminalizing the provision of remote gaming services to American consumers, the country has spent considerable time and effort trying to reach a compromise with American authorities that would recognize the legitimacy conferred by the WTO judgment with respect to Antiguan remote gaming services, while addressing any material concerns US authorities might have with respect to the provision of these services from abroad.
It said that last week’s indictments and other recent developments seem to indicate that the US is still unwilling or unable to tackle the issue of offshore remote gaming services in a “mature and legally compliant fashion”.
In light of that, Minister Lovell advised that, “at this time we are examining all of the options we have against the United States as a result of the WTO decision”.
“We are confident that the WTO rulings have significant strength and we are now looking into ways to capitalise on that in order to achieve our objectives,” he said.
Mendel added that it might now be time for Antigua to go back to the WTO and compel American compliance with the organization’s rulings.
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