Editorial

Act now, Prime Minister

Monday, November 26, 2018

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It's not by accident that all available evidence shows public support for states of emergency in St James and sections of St Catherine and Kingston.

The reason is that violent crime, an awful blight over the last five decades, has dipped significantly in areas where the military and the police have been given extraordinary powers.

That said, the report carried to Parliament by Public Defender Ms Arlene Harrison Henry telling how detainees in St James have been treated should cause Government, army and constabulary, and indeed all Jamaicans, to hang their heads in shame.

We are told that the constitutional rights of detainees have been, and apparently are still being, trampled on in all manner of ways. Constitutional rights apart, people who have not been charged with any crime are being deprived of their dignity and treated with total disrespect — without the basic decency which should be extended as a matter of course to all human beings.

The public defender told Parliament that “the vast majority of (detainees) are taken up — their lives disrupted — processed and released… not even cardboard or newspaper provided for them to sleep on. There is overcrowding, the conditions are appallingly deplorable and shameful. We must remember that the standard that the charter (Charter of Rights) holds us to is one where persons are to be treated humanely, [but] these standards have not been maintained.”

Ms Harrison Henry is reported as saying that the Ministry of Health's investigations supported findings of unhealthy conditions, including no hand-washing facilities, non-functioning toilets, inadequate ventilation, among other health hazards.

Astoundingly, the public defender says little or no thought was given to logistics before the state of emergency was launched in January. There was “very little thought, if any” given to processing, accommodation, health and well-being of detainees.

“Absolutely no arrangement was put in place for the handling of detainees,” the public defender said.

Family members had great difficulty finding out the status of detainees, and police displayed a largely cavalier attitude — a situation made worse by each extension of the state of emergency.

It seems that in some cases, 'left hand' had no idea what 'right hand' was up to, as illustrated by the story of how overcrowding at lock-ups in St James led to a truckload of men being sent to the Horizon Adult Remand Centre in Kingston. It turned out that the authorities in Kingston had no knowledge of the arrangement and no place to put the new arrivals.

“In the end, the truck had to turn around and return to Montego Bay without a soul disembarking,” Parliament was told.

All of the above flies in the face of a solemn pledge made by Prime Minister Andrew Holness when the state of emergency was first announced. Back then Mr Holness said that the State of Emergency “does not mean that the use of these extraordinary powers can be arbitrary or are beyond review. The security forces are expected, and have been directed, to treat citizens with respect and protect the dignity and safety of all”.

It seems to us that the prime minister needs to act with haste to straighten out the disgraceful situation as outlined by the public defender. And to the extent that such a thing is possible, he and his Government need to right the wrongs.

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