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Woe unto Tivoli

ROBERT NESTA MORGAN

Sunday, March 02, 2014    

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JAMAICA at times feels like a horror movie stuck on repeat. More citizens die at the hands of the police per capita than almost anywhere else. We still have one of the highest homicide rates in the world and our Government's best talent seems to be levying new taxes and increasing their perks.

I was in my first year at the University of the West Indies during the last enquiry into security operations in Tivoli Gardens. At the time, many of us were shocked by what happened in the community and some are still bothered that to date there have been no credible answers to why and how 27 people lost their lives and who was ultimately responsible for those killings.

Many were traumatised by seeing dead bodies being eaten by dogs in the streets of Kingston and shocked at the brutality of the State towards its own citizens. On the other hand, just as it is today, some persons genuinely believed that the people of Tivoli Gardens and West Kingston brought it on themselves and will hold that belief unless or until a close friend or family member is killed at the hands of the State.

Criticism of the conduct and outcome of the 2001 enquiry came not just from members of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), but from civil society and international organisations, including Amnesty International. Among questionable statements made during the proceedings was the infamous SSP Renato Adams quote "I don't necessarily have to aim", in response to questions as to whether the police indiscriminately fired shots into the community.

It was also interesting to note a newspaper report that "Lawyers for the public defender have been trying their best; it is obvious that the burden is far too much for the two men. They are up against a battery of well-qualified lawyers representing the Jamaica Constabulary Force, the Jamaica Defence Force and the People's National Party who seem to have found common cause so far".

Fast-forward to 2014, 12 years later, and we are here again. Again, a People's National Party (PNP) Government has announced an enquiry and again we see familiar faces involved in the process and again the subject is the killing of many in Tivoli.

In this sequel we have the same stars: the police, the PNP, the army, the JLP, and imported commissioners appointed on the advice of the prime minister. The same plot is at play.

General principles of governance and justice underlying the establishment of any trial or enquiry or hearing at any level of society, require the avoidance of bias or pre-determined positions by those charged with decision making. On that basis alone it was more than surprising that the Government would recommend anyone who played a significant role in a previous hearing of security operations in Tivoli Gardens.

Most shocking of all, however, is that it is a matter of public record and reported in The Gleaner that then Counsel for the Commission, Ms Velma Hylton, QC, expressed in her final submission to the inquiry that: "I do not understand the logic behind saying to both the police and soldiers, that because there are women and children in front of the gunmen they cannot fire."

The news article went on to say that chairman of the Commission, Canadian Justice Julius Isaacs, reminded her that the police, "for obvious reasons", had testified that they had refrained from returning fire when the lives of women and children were endangered.

But Miss Hylton countered, "That is what they say. I maintain that is what they say, but I don't understand it... For the period July 7, July 8 and July 9, I have not seen any evidence adduced before this Commission which could lead me, looking at it from every quarter, to fault any member of the security forces who was out there that day."

Now Ms Hylton, QC, has been elevated to a commissioner and her statements have followed her.

On the popular Beyond the Headlines programme with Dionne Jackson Miller, the current Attorney General Mr Patrick Atkinson, QC, sought to defend these statements by claiming that the learned Ms Hylton was interpreting the law. While I am not a lawyer, I do not believe that there is anything in statute or common law in Jamaica or any other progressive common law jurisdiction that suggests that the police and army are authorised to shoot at civilians, especially women and children.

While I am sure that she did make legal submissions to the enquiry, the offending statements appear to be subjective expressions of her personal opinion. That the attorney general of the country offered this pithy explanation on such a serious matter is outrageous, to say the very least.

I really would like to know if the PNP's arrogance has now completely blinded them to have taken this step. How could the prime minister recommend an individual with such palpably prejudicial opinions on the value of the lives of inner-city women and children? Is demonising Tivoli and the JLP so important?

What is clear is that the credibility and fairness of this enquiry is even further in question as I do not see how any Jamaican citizen, any human rights activist, and even less so in particular, any resident of West Kingston, could expect impartiality in the hearing of this matter by someone who has publicly stated her support for the shooting of women and children by the security forces.

Another nail in the coffin of credibility is the fact that it was only in 2011 that Senator AJ Nicholson, QC tabled a Motion in the Senate asking for a review of the Commission of Enquiry Act (the Act) including reform of the method of appointment of commissioners. Then in Opposition, he suggested that it could not be allowable for a head of government to "unilaterally appoint the commissioners or other arbiters who are to enquire into issues which touch and concern the conduct of the Government itself and to settle the terms of reference for such an enquiry".

Despite this sound, principled position, when the current Government amended the Act in 2013, and could easily have added Senator Nicholson's suggestions, it did not.

You see, that would not have achieved the political ends that this Government seeks with this Commission. Although they campaigned on restoring transparency to government, their actions consistently show the direct opposite.

Make no mistake, I am not naïve. I know that politics plays a role in almost every aspect of our lives and I am not surprised as to the political nature and implications of this inquiry. But that does not make it okay. What I worry about daily, is that the country continues and has suffered due to the political moves and considerations of our leaders.

We need to balance politics with fairness and justice in order to see the real transformation that is required in Jamaica. Not just the word 'transformation', which the prime minister mentioned over 50 times in her last budget speech, but a real and perceived transformative process of truth and reconciliation to deal with the great crimes that have been committed against the citizens of this county.

But again, the people of Tivoli Gardens are in the firing range of vilification, to be demonised and condemned simply because of where they live, by the same hands as in 2002.

Woe unto Tivoli.

Robert Nesta Morgan is a communications consultant and a member of the Jamaica Labour Party

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