Tue | Jul 16, 2019

Gov’t lost at sea - Foreign affairs, security ministers in the dark on alleged ‘slave-like treatment’ of fishermen

Published:Saturday | June 15, 2019 | 12:22 AMEdmond Campbell/News Coordinator
Luther Patterson
David Williams
Patrick Ferguson
Robert Weir
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Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith says the Government cannot call in officials from the United States Embassy to shed light on the alleged inhumane treatment meted out to five Jamaican fishermen by the US Coast Guard until she has received “as many facts as possible about the matter”.

Yesterday, Opposition Senator Lambert Brown asked Johnson Smith if she had called in US officials locally about the “slave-like treatment of the Jamaican fishermen who were held unjustly by the US authorities”.

He charged that the treatment of the Jamaican fishermen, who were detained for more than a month aboard US Coast Guard vessels, was appalling, noting that the “rights and liberties of our Jamaican brothers” were impacted.

“I have indicated to the Senate that we are investigating. We are seeking to understand the case more because it only came to our attention yesterday (Thursday),” said Johnson Smith.

In a Gleaner interview on Thursday, George Thompson, 44, said that on the night of September 14, 2017, he and four others – Robert Dexter Weir, Patrick Wayne Ferguson, Luther Fian Patterson, and David Roderick Williams – believed that they stared death in the face.

In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union, Weir, Ferguson, Williams, and Patterson claim they were captured by the members of the US Coast Guard, stripped naked, given white, paper-thin overalls and disposable slippers to wear instead, and subsequently chained by their ankles to metal cables.

When contacted by The Gleaner yesterday, National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang said he was not aware of the incident.

However, he pointed out that when Jamaicans were being deported, US officials would inform the Jamaican Consulate in Washington, New York or Miami.

He said that when deportees land in Jamaica, the police would process them to ascertain if they had any case against them.

“They are reported to the police, who keep a record,” he added.

Chang indicated that his ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade would investigate the matter and provide a response.

Posing questions and making comments in the Senate yesterday, opposition lawmaker K.D. Knight took issue with how Johnson Smith is handling the matter.

He noted that the issue came to public attention on Thursday and expressed alarm that the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade “is reading from her smartphone to make a statement to the Senate, and after the passage of 24 hours, cannot tell Jamaicans whether or not the Shiprider Agreement was relevant or whether it was breached and what steps will Jamaica be taking”.

The Shiprider Agreement is a memorandum of understanding for, among other things, cooperation in deterring the movement of illicit drugs through Jamaican territorial waters from South America to the United States. It puts a framework in place for the exercise of jurisdiction in each nation’s continuous zone.

Johnson Smith was at pains to point out that her ministry was making enquiries about the matter, noting that the issue was sensitive. The minister stressed that she would not speak in a speculative manner.

Knight noted that it was not likely that a reasonable response would be given “because the situation has not been treated with the urgency that it deserves and where inefficiency reigns, clarity will be absent”.

Brown asked her when the Jamaican Government was first notified that the US authorities were holding five Jamaican fishermen in custody.

However, Johnson Smith said that her ministry was responsible for the consular aspect of deportation while the “Ministry of National Security is responsible for everything else”.

“I am saying, and I think I have said several times this morning, that we, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are making enquiries of not only the relevant consulate, which is the Consulate General in Miami, but also of the relevant government agencies and departments,” she said.

“We know that the men were deported. They were deported, and, therefore, we have confirmed that there are records of deportation [in 2018]. ... There is no record of any complaint of this matter. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs became aware of this matter yesterday (Thursday) by virtue of the media reports. ... But the broader issue, we are making enquiries because we do not know enough about this case.”

US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Scott McBride, chief of media relations, told The Associated Press earlier that the agency requested permission from the Government of Jamaica to prosecute the men in the United States. The agency then detained the men and later received consent from the Jamaican Government, he added.

Up to news time, The Gleaner did not get a response from officials at the US Embassy in Kingston after posing questions on the matter.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com