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The Tivoli Gardens Commission of Enquiry: What can we expect

Published:Tuesday | February 3, 2015 | 12:00 AMHorace Levy
Horace Levy
FILE Jamaica Defence Force soldiers comb a section of Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston, in search of guns and ammunition which were amassed by thugs who barricaded the community in their bid to protect fugitive Christopher 'Dudus' Coke.
FILE Police Commissioner Owen Ellington leads the way during a walk through in Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston with members of the Jamaica Defence Force in June 2010.
FILE The Presidential Click office of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke which was subsequently transformed into a police post.
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The question of what to expect from the current commission of enquiry into the Tivoli Gardens operation of the security forces in May 2010 must start by asking what that event was all about in the first place, what were its objectives?

On the surface, May 2010 was about capturing Christopher 'Dudus' Coke in order to extradite him to the United States. Underneath, it was the decades-overdue step of asserting the central authority of the State and putting an end to the 'state-within-a-state' position that Tivoli Gardens had gained. Prime Minister Bruce Golding's decision to go after Dudus was, therefore, a momentous one, nine-month puzzling delay notwithstanding, or perhaps its explanation.

It also meant we must not forget (or we must learn if we did not know it), removing the threat of a criminal takeover, literally, of the Jamaican State. This threat and the fear of it rested on the fact, or so it appeared to keen observers though hardly said publicly, that certain government ministers were too closely connected with Tivoli's 'president'.

The surface and underlying goals were, to some extent, achieved: Dudus was captured in June and extradited, and the operation in Tivoli, with its severe policing follow-up, dissolved some of the impunity that gunmen across the city had enjoyed. Murders and other major crimes dropped sharply and garrisons were shaken. At the same time, while the West Kingston 'system' (as it was called) was disrupted, it has not been dismantled. The huge potential that May 2010 appears to have had remains still to be realised.

That was, in part, because of what went wrong. The security forces' operation became what has been rightly called an 'incursion': dozens of innocent citizens coldly shot dead. The public defender and those in civil society who knew the happenings that were hidden from the general public insisted, however, on compensation and called for an enquiry. Thus, more than four and a half years later, and after the Manatt-Phelps distraction, the present commission was born.

 

Hope for exposure

 

What is hoped for first from this enquiry is, then, some exposure of what happened on May 24-26, 2010, and the country has been hearing some of this. Sorrowful and tearful as the testimonials have been, the surface has, however, only been scratched. Will those who have witnessed the burning of bodies and the concealment of other evidence come forward to tell what they know? Will those who can persuade them to do so? This exposure is the solid ground on which the State will have to compensate the people of Tivoli.

This leads into the second hope from the enquiry - some accounting for the element of oversight from those with that responsibility. Who sanctioned police wearing masks in the Tivoli operation? Who supervised the men on the ground and their execution of young men in a certain age bracket? How did the army justify the use of mortars on a civilian residential area? How serious was the deployment of forces that

it failed to prevent Tivoli defenders from easily escaping and carrying their weapons? Responsibility for these occurrences must be determined.

Third, the fact of Tivoli itself as a political garrison under a don convicted now of grave crimes but formerly also exercising enormous political and commercial reach cannot be passed over in silence.

The Report of the National Committee on Political Tribalism (1997) describes the garrison as "not a natural outgrowth but a strategic initiative to secure and retain political power", a "fortress completely controlled by a party". Although it had earlier roots, this is the launching pad from which came Jamaica's murderous "culture of violence".

The commission's terms of reference are narrow, but the "chain of command" to which it refers must include the impunity and political space that Tivoli and other garrisons enjoyed versus security efforts. Jamaica's people and political parties must deal with this history.

These are some of the expectations that the commission of enquiry must address. Witnessing and questioning must break through the narrowness that the defence lawyers for the police and military persons will tend to impose. They must not be allowed to dictate the process, however, and by their remits prevent a wider truth from emerging.

This will be the challenge that a watchful civil society must require the commissioners to take on. Recommendations of scope, depth and persuasive impact must result and civil society must demand that the State implement.

n Horace Levy is a human-rights activist.