Over 2,300 Jamaicans in prison overseas

Imprisoned pilot in Qatar sparked verbal sparring between Bartlett, Nicholson

By Desmond Allen Executive Editor - Special assignment allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 30, 2015

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At least 2,309 Jamaicans are in lock-ups in 10 countries across four regions of the world, posing a dilemma for the Government as to how much effort, time and tax-payers' money it must expend to represent them.

The issue of the incarceration of Jamaicans overseas was dramatised by the controversy surrounding pilot Paul Andrew Stephens who returned home last Thursday, after nearly four years in prison in Qatar for the alleged rape of a teenager who claimed she lost her virginity during the alleged assault one night when Stephens was left by her mother to watch over the children in her absence.

Stephens who stepped off a plane at the Norman Manley Airport and hurried directly to a media briefing at the Courtleigh Hotel in New Kingston, has strenuously maintained his innocence, countering that he had consensual sex with the 16-year-old girl, and suggested that she initiated the act.

In Jamaica the age of consent is 16 years old.

But the Qatari courts, unimpressed with his pleadings and subsequent appeal, sentenced Stephens to five years in prison, to be followed by deportation, on the evidence of witnesses including the teenager's mother, a neighbour and school authorities to whom the girl reported the alleged assault in November 2008. He was granted a pardon last month, after the intervention of the Jamaican Government, with prodding from family and friends.

The case was brought to light here by Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, Edmund Bartlett who dogged A J Nicholson's Foreign Ministry to provide support for Stephens, while he languished in the prison for a crime the 39-year-old Qatar Airlines pilot insisted he had not committed. Bartlett was supplied with information by Justice of the Peace Judie O'Sullivan, a tireless advocate for his release.

"The nonchalance and tardiness that have characterised the Paul Stephens case following his pardon, are unworthy of Jamaica's foreign services and the minister himself, whose main objective should be the protection of the rights and interests of Jamaican citizens regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves," said Bartlett in a party news release prior to Stephens' return home.

Nicholson struck back that his ministry had done everything it could to stand by the pilot and was only constrained by the necessity to respect the laws of the Persian Gulf state, protect bilateral relations between the two countries and ensure its actions did not put in jeopardy law-abiding Jamaicans who live and work in Qatar.

"The Qatari Ministry of Interior has advised that the real impediment to the individual's release and deportation is due to a ban because of an outstanding obligation which must be honoured before he can be released. Many persons in the detention centre in Qatar awaiting deportation have bans against them for outstanding debts and until these bans are lifted, deportation will not be finalised," Nicholson offered in a Ministry news release.

Figures provided by the Diaspora and Consular Affairs Department of the Foreign Ministry, at the Jamaica Observer's request, showed that at October 14, 2014, some 2,309 Jamaican nationals were incarcerated abroad - convicted, on remand or in detention awaiting deportation.

The number included 1,424 in the United States based on statistics provided by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); 619 in the United Kingdom; 133 in Canada; 43 in Trinidad and Tobago; 40 in Barbados; 23 in Antigua and Barbuda; 12 in Cuba; 10 in Curacao; four in St Lucia and one in Mexico. There were at least 61 women in the number.

In the long running battle with Bartlett over Stephens, Minister Nicholson outlined the approach taken by the ministry to intervene after Jamaicans are accused of crimes in foreign countries.

"Where Jamaican nationals are arrested and/or held in custody overseas, the policy of the Government of Jamaica is to allow the legal processes to run their due course. The role of our overseas missions in these circumstances is to attend to the welfare of the concerned individual, maintain contact where possible, give general advice with regards to securing good legal representation and facilitate communication between the concerned individual and his or her next of kin.

"...Each case is assessed on its own merit and the appropriate actions are determined and diligently pursued, having regard to the traditions and legal system of the foreign state, the charges in question, the wishes of the national, etc," said Nicholson, noting that

In the case of Stephens, the Jamaican was arrested in Qatar in November 2008 and charged for "a serious offence".

"He was found guilty by the Primary Court (court of first instance) in November 2012 and sentenced to five years imprisonment to be followed by deportation. He filed an appeal but his conviction was upheld by the Appeal Court in April 2013. A further appeal to the Court of Cassation was denied in December 2013. Decisions made by the Court of Cassation, the appellate court of the highest instance, are final," the minister said.

He added that Stephens was first taken into custody on November 17, 2008 and was released on bail on March 25, 2010, during which time he could not work or leave the country, but was paid a partial salary by his employer. Following his conviction on November 28, 2012, Nicholson said, Stephens was taken into custody in January 2013 to begin his sentence. At the end of November 2014, he would have spent a total of 38 months (three years and two months) in detention. During this time the embassy which was established in Kuwait in October 2010, kept in contact with him through regular phone calls.

On April 2014, the Jamaican Government dispatched a diplomatic note to the Qatari Government, requesting a pardon that would allow the early release and departure of Stephens from Qatar. That was followed up by several other requests and telephone inquiries to the authorities there. Another diplomatic note was dispatched on November 23, 2014, renewing the request for pardon.

Between then and the eventual granting of the pardon on July 7, 2015, Bartlett became a thorn in Nicholson's flesh, prompting a strong letter from the foreign minister who was clearly fed up with his accusations that nothing was being done to assist Stephens.

The Observer spoke with both Minister Nicholson and MP Bartlett for this story.

Pics: AJ Nicholson; Paul Stephens; Judie O'Sullivan; Emir of Qatar (website)




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