Anti-crime consensus | Gov't, Opposition coalesce to pass controversial crime bill
The Government and the parliamentary Opposition yesterday moved from positions that threatened to divide them on a critical piece of law to fight crime to near unanimity after hours of deliberations to tweak the so-called Zones of Special Operations bill. At the end of the sitting of Parliament, the bill was passed with 18 amendments.
Justice Minister Delroy Chuck, who piloted the legislation, sent a strong message to "marauding" criminal elements that with the passage of the Zones of Special Operations bill, the security forces would put gunmen to flight.
Painting a picture of a society gripped by fear of the "wicked" actions of criminals who have held communities hostage, Chuck said that the "trigger-happy, dog-hearted" gunmen have no regard for age or gender and have laid siege to communities and are sexually abusing young girls.
"These communities are crying out," the justice minister lamented, charging that with this new piece of legislation, the security forces must go into the belly of these areas plagued by gunmen and set up their bases to flush out the criminals. "We cannot allow these gunmen to take over the country. We must put them on the run."
The new legislation has been crafted as the Government's latest response to crime, with zones of special operations declared to tackle threats to the rule of law and order by criminals who unleash hostility on communities.
Reciting appalling murder figures from as far back as 2003 when the murder rate was less than 1,000, the prime minister said that the succeeding years have seen a preponderance of murders, surging past the 1,000 mark..
Prime Minister Andrew Holness made it clear that the murder situation in Jamaica was not normal, noting that the country was becoming insensitive to incidents of murder. He said that countries engaged in war did not wrack up murder rates like the ones found in Jamaica.
Holness said that the leaders of the country, and, by extension, the Parliament, were sending a signal that "we do not accept this as normal".
The prime minister said that the crime problem in Jamaica required urgent action, and the new legislation was an appropriate response.
On the question of adequate resources for the security forces to take on the crime monster, Holness suggested that the Government would be taking a measure to Parliament next week that would set out new funding arrangements to fight crime.
Not replicating a state of emergency
The Zones of Special Operations law, according to Prime Minister Andrew Holness, is not seeking to replicate a state of emergency, an issue raised by the parliamentary Opposition.
He sought to dispel fears that the prime minister, in council, would instruct the security forces to carry out their operations. "It is not left up to the prime minister's whims and fancies," Holness said, adding that the prime minister acts upon the advice of the National Security Council to declare zones of special operations.
"Once the zone is established, the Government has nothing to do with the operations," he stressed.
During the committee stage, it was decided that the prime minister could only declare zones of special operations if such a request was made in writing by the commissioner of police and the chief of defence staff.
Peter Bunting, opposition spokesman on national security, in his contribution to the debate, said that the Opposition did not intend to frustrate the Government's efforts to pass the Zones of Special Operations law.
Isolate police from politics
He, however, cautioned that Edward Seaga, in his capacity as opposition leader in the early 1990s, proposed amendments to the Jamaica Constabulary Force Act, which effectively separated policy from operations. "It isolated the police from politics," Bunting stressed. He said that if passed in its current form, the bill would give a minister power to direct the police commissioner in operational matters.
Bunting noted that if the Government made a few adjustments, the Opposition would support the bill.