Senators clash over deported Jamaican fishermen

BY BALFORD HENRY
Senior staff reporter
balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 16, 2019

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Members of the Senate clashed Friday, after Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith insisted that the Government would respond to the issues stemming from the detention of five Jamaican fishermen by the United States Coast Guard in 2017 after completing its investigations.

Senator Johnson Smith told crusading Opposition senators K D Knight and Lambert Brown, who accused the Government of falling down on its duties to protect the Jamaicans after she confirmed that her ministry only became aware of the issue on Thursday in the media, that she has since launched an investigation to ascertain the facts.

Senator Johnson Smith, in a statement to the Senate at the start of its proceedings, said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade had become aware of the matter after it was reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought a lawsuit claiming damages for four of the five fishermen for “physical and psychological harm” they allegedly endured for 32 days after being detained by the US Coast Guard in 2017.

“We have also seen a video in which the fishermen concerned cite experiences of shocking treatment during an extended period of detention that would amount to human rights abuse. The allegations are of serious concern to the ministry, as the rights of Jamaicans at home and abroad are always of paramount importance to the Government of Jamaica,” Johnson Smith said.

“We note that the American Civil Liberties Union, has agreed to provide the men with legal representation, and that the matter is now before a court of law in the United States. It is hoped that justice will be delivered through that process.

“We are investigating the situation with our consulate in Miami and other relevant government agencies as we seek to learn more about the case, but to date have not discovered any record of a complaint having been reported to the consulate or the headquarters in Kingston,” she said.

Senator Knight rose and asked where the incident started and was it, from her information, in breach of any agreement between the United States and Jamaica. He also asked what steps the Government intended to take, between the two States, at the diplomatic level.

Senator Johnson Smith responded that the Government was not in possession of any information which would allow her to answer the questions from Knight, and noted that the Government was continuing its enquiry into the matter from both Government agencies and through its consulate to find out the circumstances.

She said that the only confirmation the Government had was that the incident started in Haitian waters, as well as that the men were deported to Jamaica in 2018.

“We have no other information, at this point in time other than what has been set out in the case document. and the matter is before the court and we therefore have to be quite sensitive about how we address those things,” she said.

Knight said that apart from the court issue, there would arise an issue between the two States which has nothing to do with the legal issue pending in the US court. He questioned whether the Shiprider Agreement had been breached in the process.

The Shiprider Agreement is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) which establishes bilateral boarding procedures for law enforcement officials of either country to board and inspect flagged vessels.

At this point Government Senator Robert Morgan rose to make a point, but Senator Knight responded by saying he was talking “rubbish”, and warned him, “look here, don't follow people”.

Morgan noted that the minister had stated that the matter was being investigated, but Knight was making it appear as if a breach was established.

“That's not a point of order. Hold you lane. It is incompetence why this is happening now on your part, minister. You are an incompetent minister,” Knight told Johnson Smith.

“This is not a matter of speculating on anything,” he went on, despite the appeals from the Senate President Thomas Tavares-Finson for a chance to intervene.

“I am going to say something pellucid: When I am questioning the minister, it would be wise for neophytes to be quiet,” Knight told Morgan.

“I wish to ask that you emphasise to the senator that his experience in this House is of no more authority than mine…,” Senator Morgan responded.

“Senator Morgan, Senator Knight is well aware that every senator has the right to be heard and [to] participate in a debate,” Tavares-Finson intervened.

Asked by the president to complete his statement, Senator Knight added: “Well, you know, I usually and on this occasion (I will) ignore rude wimps”.

Senator Johnson Smith said that she could not answer Senator Knight's questions, because the matter which is being pursued is sensitive. She also said that she did not accept Knight's position that the issue did not affect the case (before the US Court).

“It is not a position which the Government of Jamaica can take so we are enquiring into the matter. But the statement stands as it has been put forward that enquiries are being made of the relevant agencies. I will not speak in a speculative manner in order to assuage someone; I don't know,” she stated.

Senator Brown accused the Government of failing to protect the rights of Jamaicans, and asked whether or not the Jamaican Consulate was contacted by the US authorities since 2017.

Senator Johnson Smith said that her ministry has confirmed records that the men were deported from the US in 2018. She said that it was a matter of record, which her ministry had obtained after enquiring about the incident on Thursday.

“There is no record of any complaint on this matter,” she noted.

British newspaper, The Guardian reported on Thursday that the fishermen were held by the US Coast Guard, who accused them of trafficking drugs in Haitian waters. When they finally arrived in Miami a month later, each of them pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana.

Those drugs charges did not stick. But the men pleaded guilty to “knowingly and intentionally providing] materially false information to a federal law enforcement officer during a boarding of a vessel regarding the vessel's destination”, The Guardian said court papers stated.

The ACLU claimed that they pleaded guilty, because they were told that “it was the quickest and surest way to get back to their homes and families in Jamaica and to put an end to their nightmare”. They were sentenced to 10 months in US prison, and deported in autumn 2018.

In a statement, the US Coast Guard was reported as saying that the men had been detained because its staff “observed the crew of the vessel jettison numerous packages of marijuana”, some of which it recovered from the sea.

“All suspects are cared for humanely while preserving the security of both the crew and suspects,”the coast guard stated.


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