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With open arms - Public defender embraces zones of special operations

Published:Wednesday | July 26, 2017 | 12:00 AMJason Cross
Harrison Henry

With the murder rate close to its highest levels in Jamaica, and with the nation cowering in fear and calling for an end to the bloodletting, Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry is declaring that the country can no longer carry out business as usual.

That is why the human-rights defender is giving her support to the zones of special operations, the Government's latest response to cutting the crime rate, but which has persons - including legislators and other human-rights advocates - cringing.

The legislation allows the prime minister, on the advice of the National Security Council, to declare a zone of special operations in an area where there is rampant criminality, gang warfare, escalating violence, and murder, as well as a threat to the rule of law and public order.

The new law provides the security forces with powers to search places, vehicles, or persons with or without a warrant.

But speaking with The Gleaner at Up Park Camp recently, following the training of police and military personnel on the importance of respecting citizens' human rights during the special operations, Harrison Henry stressed that the level of criminality that exists far outweighs the concerns that persons have regarding the Zones of Special Operations Act.

"The concerns are broader than the act," she said. "The concerns relate to what we see as a surge in criminal activity in Jamaica that is affecting the rights of citizens. We have to look at what is happening in the country. The thing has escalated to a point where there are allegations of a knife wielder at the Spanish Town Hospital. The situation is growing progressively worse. We, equally as human-rights persons, do not like restrictions that legislation pose on us, but in the context of what is happening in Jamaica, I am saying that it cannot be business as usual. We see the legislation as a tool and an aid to the security forces to try and get the situation under control," Harrison Henry said.

While attempting to reassure Jamaicans that they need not worry about their human rights being breached during the execution of the zones of special operations, Harrison Henry said that law-abiding citizens would not be targeted by the security forces.

"That is my understanding of the intention of Parliament, that the legislation is aimed at criminal elements and not decent law-abiding citizens. Therefore, one of the things that the security forces have to be sensitive about is their intelligence. That is important. You cannot make an entire community suffer for the actions of a handful, so you have to go in with good intelligence, and we have to know where it is that we need to target in the particular communities. Remember, the legislation does not allow for any arbitrary mass detention. It doesn't allow for any arbitrary door-to-door searches. It doesn't allow for arbitrary and unequal opportunity of being locked up because you are a male of a certain age and you fit a particular profile," Harrison Henry said.

"There is no provision for that in the legislation, and the security forces would do us no good if they went in and conducted themselves in that way. I think what we want and hope for is a collaborative approach between citizens, who are tired of the criminals, and the security forces. A lot depends on the attitude with which the security forces go into the communities. Disrespect and disdain are not going to work. Go in with the capability of listening to members of communities to understand how the communities operate and properly identify persons of interest," the public defender said.