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Human rights push - Holness wants commission established to proactively protect citizens

Published:Tuesday | August 12, 2014 | 8:00 AM
Opposition Leader Andrew Holness

With Jamaica under the microscope of international rights organisations for alleged human-rights violations, Opposition Leader Andrew Holness is calling for the establishment of a Commission of Human Rights to take a proactive approach to the protecting of the rights of citizens.

"We have the Office of the Public Defender, but (it) basically only reacts to incidents that have happened," said Holness.

"We are recommending a commission of human rights, which would be a proactive body that would follow trends in regards to the abuse of human rights and make recommendations to influence policy changes."

Holness was speaking at a press conference in Montego Bay yesterday following a tour of the Barnett Street Police Station, where 31-year-old construction worker Mario Deane suffered a brutal beating, which resulted in his death on Independence Day.

Acting Public Defender Matondo Mukulu said the suggestion for a human rights commission is a good one, as Jamaica "needs a human rights focus at this time".

He told The Gleaner that Justice Minister Mark Golding mooted that idea at a meeting at two weeks ago, which was also attended by Alexander Williams, the opposition spokesman on justice.

COUNTRY NEEDS IT

"The country needs it, and it is certainly a role that the Office of the Public Defender can play," Mukulu said. He said an amendment to the Public Defender (Interim) Act, to allow it to take civil action in court for human-rights abuses, would make the entity ideal for such a task.

Yesterday, Nancy Anderson, legal officer at the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights, said Holness should give more details to back up his suggestion for a human-rights commission.

"To simply set up a commission on human rights sounds like a nice title, but I would have to see more of the details to make a genuine comment. It's just a name; I need to know details of what he is setting up and the contents," she said.

Anderson, however, said that if handled appropriately, the duties of such a commission need not conflict with those of the Office of the Public Defender.

Meanwhile, attorney-at-law Bert Samuels is contending that the failure of police personnel at the Bartnett Street Police Station to protect Deane while he was in their custody reeks of the Agana Barrett tragedy that jolted the nation 22 years ago.

In October 1992, Barrett and died of suffocation in the Constant Spring lock-up after being crammed into a small cell with 16 other men.

Samuels, who represented policemen implicated in the Agana Barrett court case more than two decades ago, lamented that Jamaica is back where it was two decades ago.

"We have not learnt sufficiently what we should from the Agana Barrett experience where police take someone into custody, rightly or wrongfully," he said.

Samuels charged that whenever a person is placed in custody, there are duties that the police should carry out. He told The Gleaner that when he represented the policemen who were charged for manslaughter in the death of Barrett and two others, he discovered during hearings that there were rules and procedures governing the protection of inmates.

"At half-hour intervals, police personnel are required to examine cells to ensure that everything was in order," Samuels said. "So it is not merely placing someone in a cell ... there is the duty to supervise the cell, and the police should do this within a period of 30 minutes."