Bodies all over - Golding paints grisly Tivoli account
Livern Barrett, Gleaner Writer
FORMER Prime Minister Bruce Golding yesterday recounted that one day into the 2010 police-military operations in the West Kingston community of Tivoli Gardens, then Public Defender Earl Witter reported to him that he saw bodies piled up at the morgue.
According to Golding, Witter, along with then Political Ombudsman Bishop Herro Blair and the chairman of the Red Cross at the time, Dr Jaslin Salmon, were the members of a team he had asked to visit the community to carry out an assessment of the operations.
He recalled that on the evening of May 25, 2010 - one day after the operations began - the three men were "visibly disturbed" as they briefed him at his official residence at Vale Royal on what they had seen and recounted that Witter, who arrived late, explained that his tardiness was "because he wanted to count the bodies that were piled up at the morgue".
"They reported seeing dead bodies lying in the street," Golding testified before the West Kingston commission of enquiry that resumed hearings at the Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston yesterday, after a near seven-week break.
"Did Mr Witter give you a figure of how many bodies he had seen at the morgue?" asked Golding's attorney, Ransford Braham, who led him through his evidence.
"He did a count and he did give a figure, but I cannot now recall what the figure was. What I recall was that it was significantly higher than the numbers that were being reported to me by the security forces in terms of casualties," the former prime minister responded.
He testified that several days later, Witter contacted him and raised "grave concerns" that a number of bodies had been moved to the May Pen Cemetery, also in West Kingston, "with the intention of being buried without any autopsy being performed and without being identified".
However, Golding said he moved swiftly to prevent this and recounted that the bodies were later recovered and placed in appropriate refrigeration at the morgue.
According to Golding's testimony, the casualties came despite his strict instructions to the heads of the security forces at the time to avoid injuries to law-abiding citizens.
"In discussions with the security forces, I emphasised the importance of trying to avoid, at all cost, any injury to law-abiding citizens, especially women and children," he testified.
In a marathon testimony that lasted all day, the former defence minister also testified during cross-examination by senior legal counsel to the commission, Garth McBean, that he was not aware of plans by the JDF to use mortars during the operations.
Golding, who was also the member of parliament for West Kingston at the time, said he first became aware of the use of mortars through residents "in what they referred to as bombs".
"I raised the matter with the chief of defence staff at the time [Major General Stewart Saunders] and [I think] his response to me was that 'these were not incendiary devices'," Golding recalled.
"He said they have more bark than bite ... , that they were used more for psychological effects, but they did not have the effect of mortar artillery. That's what I understood from the chief of defence staff at the time," he explained.
Responding to a question from Commissioner Anthony Harriott about whether he was specifically informed that the mortars were not anti-personnel devices, Golding said his understanding from Saunders was that they were used for the "shock and awe" effect.
The West Kingston commission of enquiry is examining, among other things, the conduct of members of the security forces during the operations, which were aimed at capturing then fugitive Christopher 'Dudus' Coke. An interim report by the public defender's office concluded that 76 civilians and one member of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) were killed during the operations.
Giving his account of how the events of 2010 unfolded, Golding said six days after he gave then Attorney General Dorothy Lightbourne the authority to proceed with the extradition request for Coke the heads of the security forces at the time, Police Commissioner Owen Ellington and Chief of Defence Staff Major General Stewart Saunders reported to him that the situation in the drug kingpin's Tivoli Gardens stronghold "had reached alarming proportions".
He said, as a result of that and on his advice, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen issued a proclamation declaring a state of emergency across the Corporate Area on May 23 and that "just before dawn" the following day the security forces began moving into Tivoli Gardens.
The former West Kingston MP testified that by mid-morning he began getting calls from his constituents about the actions of the security forces. "Some people were hysterical and they were complaining that people were being killed."
He will continue giving evidence when the enquiry continues today.