Tuesday, July 02, 2002

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THE commission that probed last July's deadly violence in West Kingston that cost more than two dozen lives, has ruled that the police not only acted responsibly, but that for their restraint the death toll might have been higher.

The three-member team also held that the three days of violence were triggered by the effort of owners of drugs and guns in West Kingston to protect them from the police and argued that Opposition leader, Edward Seaga, in claiming an unprovoked attack, on the community, had "deviated from the grim reality of the events of 7-10 July, 2001".

The commission said, too, that Seaga's West Kingston stronghold of Tivoli Gardens has a problem of "enormous proportions" for politicians and the security forces, and which was in need of urgent solution "by the co-operative efforts of all stakeholders".

"It seems to us that there should be no inch of Jamaican soil where the writ of the commissioner of police does not run," the commission, which was chaired by retired Canadian justice, Julius Isaac, said in its lengthy report. "And yet Tivoli Gardens, we are told, is the only garrison community where the entry of the security forces is on sufferance."

The other members of the commission were retired University of the West Indies (UWI) sociology lecturer, Dr Hyacinthe Ellis and theologian and agriculture and management expert, Dr Garnett Brown.

The West Kingston violence flared up early one Saturday morning when the police said they came under heavy gunfire in the area of Denham Town and Tivoli Gardens while conducting a cordon and search as part of an operation to search for guns and drugs at an old people's home.

The operation was being led by Senior Superintendent Reneto Adams' Crime Management Unit, but during three days of what the police said was intense firing when at least 27 people -- including a policeman and a soldier -- were killed in West Kingston. Several police vehicles were damaged or destroyed. During three more days of unrest across the country two more policemen were killed.

Seaga's Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) claimed that the West Kingston violence was part of a plot by the ruling People's National Party (PNP) to demonise Seaga as a man of violence and called for an inquiry into the incident.

However, when Prime Minister P J Patterson agreed to the inquiry the JLP quarrelled over the terms of reference and denounced the appointment of Brown, a former civil servant, saying that he was pro-PNP and against Seaga. The Opposition later also claimed that Isaac too was biased against Seaga. In fact, lawyers representing JLP-affiliated groups later abandoned the inquiry when Isaac ruled that lawyers representing Seaga and JLP councillor, Desmond McKenzie could not cross-examine witnesses unless the evidence implicated their clients -- a ruling that was upheld by the Jamaican Supreme Court.

Seaga and other senior JLP officials who went to West Kingston the day the violence broke out refused to testify before the commission.

However, the commissioners insisted that the JLP was wrong both in fact and law in its claim of bias against them and said that while the violence subsequently turned partisan with roadblocks around the country "the events of 7 July was inherently non-political in design".

Said the commissioners: "We find, based on the evidence before us, that the essential cause of the violence in Denham Town, Tivoli Gardens and its environs during 7-10 July, 2001, was the presence of drugs, the proliferation of guns and ammunition in the hands of civilians residing in the area, and the desire of the owners to protect them."

Seaga and his officials, as well as some human rights activists had claimed there was indiscriminate shooting on the part of the security forces, but the commission drew attention to a video shot from a Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) helicopter, showing men with high-powered weapons engaging the security forces and accepted that it was authentic.

"Assessing the merits of the uncontested evidence respecting the operations and conduct of the security forces in West Kingston during the explosive situation of 7-10 July, we are of the view that the security forces acted responsibly, exerting caution and restraint in order to contain the number of casualties and fatalities that might have occurred over the period had they acted otherwise," the commissioners said.

According to the commissioners, based on the transcript of radio transmissions between police headquarters and the police officers on the operation, not only was the tension high among the security forces but it appeared that the "opposing force (armed civilians) was much larger, better organised, more heavily armed and much more aggressive than anticipated".

On the issue of innocent by-standers who lost their lives, the commission said that there was no proof that they died as a result of any action on the part of the security forces and suggested that some probably died in crossfire.

Moreover, they suggested, such deaths would unlikely to have breached Section 14 (2) (a) (c) and (d) of the Jamaican constitution under which a loss of life is justifiable in the defence of persons from violence, in suppressing a riot or insurrection or to lawfully prevent the commission of a criminal offence.

In fact, the commissioners said that the "sheer hostility unleashed on the security forces in West Kingston" signified aspects of terrorism highlighted by author James Poland in his book Understanding Terrorism and there the rage and hostility had obviously been building up over time and went "far beyond a need to conceal and store illegal drugs, weapons and ammunition".




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