Wed | Jul 24, 2019

Emergency brake - Opposition halts states of emergency in St James, St Catherine, Kingston

Published:Wednesday | December 12, 2018 | 12:49 AMLivern Barrett and Jodi-Ann Gilpin/Gleaner Writers
Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Parliament last night.
Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte

A key plank of the Andrew Holness administration’s plan to drive down Jamaica’s murder rate was dealt a body blow last night as the parliamentary Opposition withdrew support for states of emergency (SOE) in St James, St Catherine North, and sections of the Corporate Area.

“Shame. I can’t believe this,” a lawmaker on the government side whispered when it became clear there were not enough votes to extend the states of public emergency.

At the end of a marathon debate that lasted beyond 11 p.m., lawmakers voted 33-21 along party lines to approve a 90-day extension of the SOE in St James. Nine opposition members were absent.

The extension of emergency powers has to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Lower House.

“The motion has failed to carry two-thirds,” House Speaker Pearnel Charles Sr declared.

The states of emergency for the St Catherine North, Kingston West, Kingston Central and St Andrew South police divisions also failed to muster enough votes for an extension. That vote ended 33-20, with 10 absences.

However, the Opposition voted with their government counterparts to extend the zones of special operations (ZOSO) in Mount Salem, St James, and the west Kingston community of Denham Town.

The St James SOE will lapse on January 31, 2019, while emergency powers will cease to apply for St Catherine North on January 2; and sections of the Corporate Area on January 7.

Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips, speaking in Parliament last evening, cited a litany of concerns that have been raised about the states of emergency, which suspend the constitutional rights of citizens.

Among the issues Phillips highlighted was the legal opinion that the SOE could be unconstitutional, as well as a report by the public defender which indicated that only four per cent of the nearly 4,000 people detained by the security forces have been charged with any serious crimes.

“We have sought legal advice and we believe the extension can be challenged in the courts,” he said.

Noting that the nation has “been this way before”, the opposition leader said for too many years the security forces have pursued a model of policing that has been “abusive of the basic rights and dignity of the ordinary Jamaican”.

“How can we justify feeding detainees dry bread and tea and keeping them in cages while spending $17 million on the sign in the same location and eat $130,000 cake?” he said in reference to the findings of the comprehensive audit of Petrojam by the auditor general that was tabled last week.

“We stand ready to support any reasonable measure, but we cannot support a further extension,” Phillips said.

Similarly, Mark Golding, opposition spokesperson on finance and member of parliament for South St Andrew, was strident in his remarks, arguing that while increased security forces have resulted in some calm, the Opposition would not support an extension in the absence of a detailed and sustainable crime plan.

“We have been saying, show us how we are going to exit this thing (SOE), and you haven’t done it. Right now, you are just saying we need more time. You need more time to do what? You haven’t told us what you are going to do,” he said.

Holness, stung by the decision of the parliamentary Opposition, argued that it would be unwise to disclose in detail the strategies that are in the pipeline to curb crime and violence.

“The decision of the Opposition is not a balanced one. It doesn’t adequately grapple with the problem,” he said.

He labelled as “hypocritical” and “opportunistic” the Opposition’s citing of poor detention conditions as a basis for withdrawing support for the states of emergency.

“Your vote is going to put some person at risk of losing a relative or their own life,” he told Opposition Spokesman on National Security Fitz Jackson.

Dr Horace Chang, minister of national security and member of parliament for St James North West, also said his interaction with constituents revealed that residents embrace any strategy that would reduce the trauma that families, and especially children, suffer.

St James has been under a state of public emergency since January 18 this year and has had in force a zone of special operations in the Mount Salem area since September 2017. The state of emergency was prompted by a record 336 murders in the parish last year.

Holness, in his presentation, also asked for Parliament to support an extension of the St James state of emergency, saying that since the measure was imposed almost a year ago, murders have been reduced by 72 per cent and shootings by 63 per cent.