How sad that the holiday week, with its delicious refreshing showers, happy celebrations and quiet relaxation for many, should end on a bitter note.
I have commented a couple of times recently on the dramatic reduction in killings involving the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). In early July the JCF reported a forty per cent reduction: from 127 killings up to July 5 in 2013 to 68 for the same period this year. The Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), which investigates every one of these killings, reports somewhat higher numbers: from 134 last year to 73 up to June this year. Both are standing by their figures, but putting the discrepancy aside, this still makes for a really significant decrease.
Why? The JCF attributes the decrease, at least in part, to a closer adherence to its High Command’s lethal force policy. According to JCF spokesman Steve Brown, lethal force has always been, and always should be, a last resort. There may be other factors. We should note that INDECOM is still investigating allegations of a police “death squad” in the parish of Clarendon. A report in the Sunday Gleaner in January documented allegations by a retired senior policeman and a serving police officer that masked policemen in the parish traveling in unmarked cars carried out unlawful raids and killings. The report caused much consternation. As a result, INDECOM has so far arrested and charged eleven policemen with murder, conspiracy to murder and wounding with intent, noting nine possible police killings of civilians since 2009 that were reported as murders. These cases are now working their way through the courts and we shall see what happens.
Also of note is the sudden retirement/resignation of Police Commissioner Owen Ellington on July 1 (announced the day before), which came as a complete surprise to most Jamaicans. The former Commissioner said one of the reasons for his leaving office was to allay any suggestion that he might interfere with the “death squad” investigations – some of the alleged killings took place when he was in charge. Speculation over this matter still rumbles just under the surface of public discourse and debate. By the way, on June 30 a former policeman was arrested in Toronto, in connection with the murder of Sylvester Gallimore and possible involvement in other murders. INDECOM requested his extradition. Has this taken place? Last time I checked (early July) the Director of Public Prosecutions was “mulling over the evidence.”
Sadly, two disturbing incidents threaten to completely overshadow the undoubtedly impressive reduction in police killings.
Early on the morning of Sunday, August 3, the police arrested 31-year-old construction worker Mario Deane for possession of a ganja “spliff” in Rosemount, St. James. Mr. Deane called his mother and told her he was in the police lock-up at Barnett Street in Montego Bay. The police say he “refused to co-operate” over bail requirements. Mr. Deane’s friend, Mr. Castel McKenzie, who arrived at the police station that morning as surety with bail documents signed by a Justice of the Peace, also “refused to co-operate,” the police say. Mr. McKenzie told the Gleaner that some remarks were made, prompting a policewoman to give him back the documents, telling him to come back at 5:00 p.m. Mr. Deane was placed back in the cell with other inmates. According to the police, a fight broke out in the cell at around 11:30 a.m. and Mr. Deane was found to be badly injured. He was taken to the Cornwall Regional Hospital and reportedly never regained consciousness. He died on Wednesday, August 6 – Jamaica’s Independence Day – from multiple head injuries. (The above account is distilled from local media reports over the last two or three days).
Yesterday we learned that the police have charged two inmates with the murder of Mario Deane, and that a third man is being “processed” (a favorite JCF term). The two men are 35-year-old Marvin Orr of Portland and Adrian Morgan, 25, of Petersville in Westmoreland. They will appear in the Montego Bay Magistrates Court next Wednesday, August 13. However, INDECOM will continue its investigations, which began on the day of the incident. INDECOM was expecting statements from the police officers on duty by the end of yesterday (were they supplied?)
The “ganja spliff” issue is one quasi-political aspect of the case, which has perhaps been overdone in the media and by some of our public figures who have spoken. Interviewed on radio, Justice Minister Mark Golding said he was “horrified” at the circumstances of Mr. Deane’s death. He said he and his colleagues are looking into an “interim policy” as an administrative measure, regarding dealing with arrests for small amounts (less than two ounces) of ganja. He is getting advice from the Attorney General on this. The Minister also said he had the draft legislation to amend laws so that it would only be a “ticketable” offense was already on his desk, and he hopes the legislation will pass in Parliament by year-end. The truth is, too many young men are arrested, locked up and sometimes victimized by the police for the possession of one spliff. When they reach the courts, the fine is only J$100 (less than one U.S. cent, by our current exchange rate), but they get a criminal record to go with it. Recently, a Resident Magistrate rather sensibly ordered a group of young men to do community service – they had to go and plant trees with the Forestry Department – for the same offense.
But the point is, surely: whether Mr. Deane was arrested for a spliff, theft, a violent crime even… He should never have ended up dead. Surely the State is responsible for the welfare of those it keeps in its custody, whatever the circumstances. By law?
Did you know the People’s National Party has a Human Rights Commission? I recall that the current Education Minister Ronald Thwaites once headed it. Its current head, another lawyer named Seymour Stewart, says there are “serious questions” to be answered. Some of these include: What does “refusing to co-operate” mean in this context? What were the bail requirements that both Mr. Deane and Mr. McKenzie refused to co-operate with? If his surety had all the correct bail documents, how could the police refuse to release Mr. Deane? How did Mr. Deane die at the hands of his (presumably unarmed) cellmates – were his wounds only from punches to the head (the police initially told his family that he had fallen off a bunk bed)? Why did the police not hear the fight in the cell – were they so far away? If Mr. Deane was being allegedly beaten by cellmates, would he not have screamed for help? Or did they ignore his cries? And there are many more questions.
And now, as if this was not enough, another young man was allegedly shot dead by the police in an exchange of gunfire in the Mountain View Avenue area of Kingston yesterday evening. His name was Eric Riley of a Jacques Road address. He reportedly worked for a government ministry. Mr. Riley’s girlfriend is pregnant, and he was about to celebrate his 28th birthday (he was a little younger than my son). Residents say he was chased and shot in cold blood in a gully.
As with Mario Deane’s death, the reaction of residents has been angry; fierce roadblocks were mounted on Mountain View Avenue. Recently repaved, its surface was badly burned. “Yuh no see, this country no fair, no fair at all,” said a weeping woman. “We need somebody to come and talk to us,” said another woman. Once again, action has been swift. The hands of the policemen involved in the shooting have been swabbed, their guns have been confiscated and INDECOM has interviewed them.
There is a lot of talk (which seems to be pure speculation, only that) about Jamaica’s “international partners” exerting all kinds of pressure on these matters. The Justice Minister confirmed that, of course, these partners have been concerned about Jamaica’s human rights record – in particular, those relating to the police – but correctly said this is an issue that Jamaica will have to address, with or without the said partners’ support. And surely it’s in our interests to do so.
Post script: I recently wrote in defense of Dr. Carolyn Gomes and the human rights lobby group, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) that she co-founded. The importance of this organization cannot be under-estimated. In a sense, the outcry over these tragic incidents, the responsiveness of government officials, and the creation of INDECOM itself are indicators that times are changing. Human rights is, after all, the essence of who we are as a nation. I believe Jamaica is at last beginning to realize this. You will find JFJ’s statement on Mario Deane on their website at jamaicansforjustice.org. And fellow blogger and writer Kei Miller has just written a post echoing my thoughts on the organization, which I will reblog shortly. Look for it.
I’m going to end with a nice quote that I just discovered, from American child rights activist Marian Wright Edelman: “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
And Jamaica is a very small nation.