Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-JAMAICA: Groups Applaud Police Charges

Zadie Neufville

ST CATHERINE, Nov 7 2003 (IPS) - Human rights groups are applauding a Jamaican official for charging police officers involved in the killings of seven men more than two years ago, but point to a long list of incidents that still need to be investigated.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Kent Pantry says the six officers of the now-defunct police crime management unit (CMU) will face murder charges for the deaths May 14, 2001 in a housing complex in Braeton about 21 kms southeast of the capital Kingston.

Charges of extra-judicial killings and excessive force continue to dog the Jamaican police. Pantry’s decision comes less than a month after three people were shot and killed in a police raid that went wrong near the resort of Montego Bay.

Also in October, a U.N. official called on the Jamaican Government to condemn the use of lethal force.

Pantry’s decision is "a welcomed milestone" for the island’s poor human rights record, say rights groups. Jamaican police average about 148 homicides a year, most in circumstances that have been disputed by the public.

"This is an important sign for a population that feels the only way to get justice is to block roads and burn tires," said Yvonne Sobers, head of the local human rights lobby group Families Against State Terrorism (FAST).

The decision, she said, was unexpected but could have important consequences.

"If people can feel that the DPP’s office is looking out for them then there will be less reprisal killings, but in order for the DPP to rule, he needs good quality investigations and enough evidence to make his rulings."

The DPP’s ruling comes just over a year after a nine-month coroner’s inquest, in a six-four split, found that no one should be charged for the shootings.

The seven men, between the ages of 15 and 20, were killed in Braeton in what the CMU called a shoot-out, a claim disputed by local human rights groups and Amnesty International (AI).

In a statement Thursday, Amnesty said, it hoped that "charging the officers will send a strong message that unlawful acts by police officers will not be tolerated".

The CMU has been implicated in other cases, such as the Jul. 7-10, 2001 standoff between police and gunmen in western Kingston where 27 people were killed, and an alleged shoot-out in Crawle, Clarendon last May 7 in which four people were killed.

But while commending the DPP on his ruling in the Braeton case, Amnesty expressed disappointment that the charges were limited to lower ranking officers.

"The officer who has commanded this operation has not been charged despite his chain of command responsibility for the actions of the officers," AI said referring to the then leader of the CMU, Renato Adams.

The controversial and outspoken Adams was removed from frontline duties following the Crawle incident.

In the last three months, 13 policemen have been charged with various crimes here. While the developments are welcomed, AI is concerned about the overall situation in Jamaica, noting, "every police killing should normally be adequately investigated by the authorities".

The group notes that numerous investigations have remained ”mired in the system".

Officers at the Bureau of Special Investigations (BSI) the agency responsible for investigating police crimes, say reluctant witnesses hamper their work. The Justice Ministry says it is taking steps to clear its backlog of cases, which critics say is hampering the delivery of justice.

The United Nations has also come out against the government’s human rights record after the administration of Percival Patterson asked for an examination into allegations of extra-judicial killings.

In mid-October Asma Jahangir, U.N. special rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, also questioned if Jamaica is adhering to the international human rights agreements that its governments have signed.

"A high crime rate does not represent an excuse for excessive use of force on the part of state authorities," she said in a report.

Jahangir also called on the government to condemn the use of lethal force except when ”strictly unavoidable”.

"Authorities at all levels of the government should clearly make stronger efforts to condemn all forms of misuse of force by security forces, and no effort should be made to protect those accused of extra-judicial executions," she added.

In April 2001, Amnesty International in a report entitled, ‘Jamaica – Killings and Violence by the Police: How Many More Victims?’ painted a picture of routine human rights violations and summary executions by security forces.

Despite a marked reduction in police killings, critics say more needs to be done to solve the problems and bring perpetrators to justice.

The BSI reports that between July 1999 and January 2000 it recorded 531 fatalities due to police shooting. Of these, the DPP has referred 200 cases to the Coroner’s Court. Forty-six of those have returned a verdict that the case is not fit to go to trial.

According to the Ministry of National Security, between Jul. 1, 1999 and Jan. 31, 2003, 23 police officers were charged for murder. As of February 2003, seven of the 23 had been acquitted.

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