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Never again - Tivoli commission says certain high-ranking officers should be prevented from leading in future

Published:Wednesday | June 15, 2016 | 12:00 AMLivern Barrett
Assistant Commissioner of Police Donovan Graham, during cross-examination at the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry at the Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston.
Winchroy Budhoo
Jamaica Defence Force soldiers on patrol in Tivoli Gardens during the operation to arrest reputed reputed drug lord Christopher 'Dudus' Coke.

The three-member tribunal that investigated the conduct of the May 2010 operations in the west Kingston community of Tivoli Gardens has found that police personnel may have engaged in extrajudicial killings and delivered a stinging rebuke of the leadership provided by former army chief Major General Stewart Saunders and retired Police Commissioner Owen Ellington.

In fact, the west Kingston commission of enquiry has recommended that Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) mortar officer Major Warrenton Dixon and a number of high-ranking members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), including assistant commissioners Donovan Graham and Winchroy Budhoo, be barred from leading or otherwise participating in future internal security operations.

"CDS Saunders, COP Ellington, ACP [Assistant Commissioner Granville] Gause and DSP [Deputy Superintendent Warren] Turner are not included in our recommendation because they are no longer serving members of the JDF and JCF," the commission wrote in its long-awaited report, which was made public yesterday.

The commission also had strong words for the Jamaican military, calling its decision to fire 37 mortar rounds into Tivoli Gardens a "serious error of judgement".

"Given the geography of the area ... it was reckless and wholly disproportionate to the threats offered by gunmen," the commission wrote.

A report by the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) found that 74 civilians and one member of the JDF were killed in the operations, which were aimed at capturing drug lord Christopher 'Dudus' Coke. The reputed leader of the 'Shower Posse' was facing extradition to the United States (US) to face firearms and narcotics charges.

In over 90 days of public hearings that ended in February, the Simmons commission heard testimony from scores of Tivoli Gardens residents, detailing how relatives, friends, and neighbours were killed in cold blood by members of the security forces, particularly the JCF.

In contrast, nearly all the residents said they never saw armed thugs inside Tivoli Gardens nor did they know how the community became barricaded with booby-trapped debris in the days leading up to the operations.

However, in the more than 900-page report, the commission listed 15 persons it said could have been killed by members of the JCF. Among them were 17-year-old Denham Town High School student Fernando Grant and his brother, Fabian Grant.

Their mother, Marjorie Williams, told the commission they were taken from their homes and executed by masked policemen.

"We find that Ms Williams was a truthful witness and we believe her account of the circumstances in which her sons were killed. That evidence is suggestive of deliberate murder by unidentified police officers," said the tribunal, chaired by former Barbados Chief Justice Sir David Simmons.

By contrast, the three-member commission dismissed the accounts of two police commanders - Deputy Superintendents Everton Tabannah and Turner - that their units were called into the area of operation at least two hours after the time given by their military counterparts.

"In the case of DSP Tabannah, we prefer the timelines given by Major [Luis] Cheverria ... . We also find material discrepancies between the evidence of DSP Turner and that of Major [Marlon] Kennedy render DSP Turner's evidence untrustworthy," the commission wrote.

"The significance of the discrepancies in the evidence of DSPs Tabannah and Turner in relation to their entry into Tivoli Gardens is this. In our opinion, the gap in times provided by these officers could have enabled members of the JCF to purport to distance themselves from possible links with extrajudicial killings, which were alleged to have occurred nearer to the time given by the JDF commanders," the report continued.

Turning to the use of mortars, the three-member tribunal said it had concerns about the propriety of that decision. Saunders admitted, in his testimony before the commission, that he authorised the use of mortars during the operations and that a total of 37 were fired into three open spaces in Tivoli Gardens.

Saunders and JDF mortar fire control officer Major Warrenton Dixon explained that the explosives were intended to keep women and children indoors and prevent armed thugs from using them as human shields.

However, while accepting that the mortars were targeted at open spaces, the Simmons commission said the areas chosen were heavily populated and carried a great risk of injury or death to residents.

Noting that the target area was less than 550 metres from the nearest civilian buildings, the commission pointed out that international guidelines call for a radial safety distance of 700 metres from residential dwellings and said in the Tivoli operations, this was never achieved.

As a result, it said some residents and properties were in danger areas.

The tribunal also indicated that it found it astonishing that former Police Commissioner Owen Ellington was never informed of the planned use of mortars.

It said as a gold commander in an operation to be jointly executed by both branches of the security forces, simple courtesy demanded that Ellington should have been made privy to the information.