Will Witter arise from slumber?

Published: Sunday | November 25, 2012 Comments 0
Public Defender Earl Witter.
Public Defender Earl Witter.

Jaevion Nelson, Guest Columnist

The freedom of religion is seemingly the most essential right in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedom. Nothing else matters in Jamaica as long as Christians enjoy their freedom of religion to the dismay of other faiths and non-believers.

Not even a report on the Tivoli incursion is as critical. What other explanation could there be for the public defender, who is mandated to protect and enforce the rights of Jamaicans, seeking a legal opinion and possible injunction on the prohibition of preaching on buses?

The last few weeks have been a gift for secularism in Jamaica. We now know that there are about 400,000 Jamaicans who are non-religious and about the same who have separated themselves from traditional churches. To top it off, Jamaica Urban Transit Company, responding to the outrage of its passengers, Christians and non-Christians alike, announced a ban on bus preaching. According to the police, persons found guilty can be charged for disorderly conduct.

I had no doubt this would incite the rage of many Christians and persons who are too afraid to challenge the status quo and privileges offered to this religious group. However, I never imagined certain sects, such as the Office of the Public Defender, would take onus for ensuring Christians can do whatever they please. Would the public defender do the same for Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Rastafarians? I highly doubt it.

UNDER-RESOURCED OFFICE

It is important to note the public defender's admission that his office is severely under-resourced.

Notwithstanding, Earl Witter announced, with timelines, that he intends to seek legal opinion and a possible injunction to protect the 'rights' of the Christian majority. Is this the same person who, weeks ago, refused to even make a comment about the long-overdue Tivoli incursion report relating to the alleged extrajudicial killings of more than 70 persons? He still hasn't provided us with a date for the report, yet there is a clear strategy to treat with the issue of bus preaching. This is beyond preposterous!

The public defender is irreverent. His statement to the media over the weekend and press conference yesterday is evidence of the disregard for the lives of those Jamaicans who lost their life in May 2010 during the Tivoli incursion.

(Allegations) of extrajudicial killings are a big issue in Jamaica. We rank among the highest in the world. A year ago, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern about reports of excessive use of force by law-enforcement personnel, particularly during the state of emergency between May and July 2010, where 73 civilians were killed at the hands of law-enforcement personnel".

The committee had also requested that Jamaica report, in November of this year, what steps have been taken to "monitor allegations of extrajudicial killings and ensure that all such allegations are investigated in a prompt and effective manner, with a view to eradicating such crimes, bringing perpetrators to justice and hence fighting impunity, and providing effective remedies to victims".

One would imagine that the public defender's report in the Tivoli incursion is crucial to this process, especially as it relates to truth and reconciliation for families, loved ones, and friends of those who were killed.

Whether or not those who died were, in fact, criminals is of no consequence. The truth about death, and even an individual's ability to see the lifeless body of a loved one, is so important to reducing grief and guaranteeing peace and security.

Desmond Tutu, a South African Anglican priest, who served on the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, advises that the past has "an uncanny capacity to return to haunt us [because] an unexamined and unacknowledged past finds all kinds of skeletons emerging from all sorts of cupboards to bedevil the present". I can only imagine the anguish that lingers in the hearts and minds of so many persons in Tivoli Gardens.

We have committed similar offences and ignored them throughout our history. Vybz Kartel profoundly made reference to our treatment of Rastafarians over the years in his book The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto. They were ridiculed and punished. The police destroyed Pinnacle (one of their very first dwellings) and "years later they were slaughtered in the Coral Gardens Massacre".

MUTUAL RESPECT, JUSTICE, TRUTH

We cannot afford to repeat this history. The next 50 years of Jamaica should be about mutual respect, truth and justice for all Jamaicans. This is just as important as the economy.

Truth, Tutu said, "could be such a potential healer ... . Forgiveness is never cheap, never easy, but that it is possible, and that ultimately real reconciliation can happen only on the basis of truth". Until the people of Tivoli and the nation have some knowledge about what really happened, we will never be able to have confidence in our already damaged security and justice system. We made a promise and we ought to do what is right.

The public defender must demonstrate an appreciation of his role in this regard. He should also furnish the report on the incursion before his already-overwhelmed office takes on another case.

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.

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