Uncertainty over SOE extension
As PM presses emergency measure, Bunting calls it ‘propaganda move’
Despite announcing that the freshly declared states of emergency (SOEs) have received support from members of the parliamentary Opposition, Prime Minister Andrew Holness and the Government he leads could face a familiar hurdle when the security measure is to be extended beyond the initial 14 days.
The hope expressed by Holness on Tuesday that his Opposition counterparts would vote to extend the SOEs has seemingly been dashed by Opposition Spokesman on National Security Peter Bunting's characterisation of the latest declaration as “political theatre”.
In a Gleaner interview Tuesday, Bunting said that SOEs were not a routine policing tool, noting that the Jamaica Labour Party administration has been using it unconstitutionally.
“Our position has been supported by two cases that have tested it in the Constitutional Court or Supreme Court so far, and we are quite frankly surprised that while the Government has appealed one of the cases, and the matter is still to be heard, the administration continues to use these unconstitutionally,” Bunting said.
In making the announcement at a press conference at Jamaica House, the prime minister said that the Government was moving to cauterise the murder rate which has increased by 6.8 per cent this year over the corresponding period last year. It had crested eight per cent just over a week ago.
Up to November 13 this year, 1,360 persons have been murdered.
The SOEs span Clarendon, St Catherine, Kingston, St Andrew, St James, Hanover, and Westmoreland.
Holness said he consulted with Opposition Leader Mark Golding about the SOEs but did not indicate whether he had received support for the measure.
The prime minister stressed that the surging crime wave was a cause for concern and that the crackdown would help to cramp violence in the lead-up to the Yuletide season.
Holness said that the current SOE would seek to strengthen the security forces' powers to search.
He said that the police would be placing emphasis on finding weapons and disarming gunmen.
According to Holness, the security forces will be using intelligence to pursue persons who are intent on carrying out criminal activities and have the power to intimidate witnesses if they were brought before the courts.
“We would now, under the SOE, have the ability to hold on to such persons, but this is not arbitrary. This Government does not believe in the arbitrary use of power,” Holness said.
Bunting, however, said that despite requests by Golding for a copy of the regulations of the new SOEs, the document is yet to be presented.
“I anticipated this type of move going into the JLP's conference. It is really quite shameful that they are politicising crime in this way,” Bunting said of the party's annual event set for November 20.
He, however, indicated that the parliamentary Opposition will in the days ahead discuss the Government's latest SOEs.
Bunting said that questions posed by the Opposition about the chairmanship and membership of the tribunal for the affected parishes are yet to be answered by the Government.
“So this is not about a serious move to ensure the safety and security of Jamaicans, this is a political propaganda move,” Bunting insisted.
According to the opposition spokesman, the declaration of SOEs in Kingston and St Andrew did not rise to the constitutional test “where action has been threatened on so extensive a scale that it is likely to endanger the public safety”.
He said the Government insists that when violent crimes and murders are increasing, that is when SOEs must be introduced.
Bunting said that in Kingston and St Andrew so far this year, murders are down 17.5 per cent and shootings have declined 23.4 per cent.
“Even by their own reasoning, there is no justification for it in Kingston and St Andrew,” he added.
The opposition spokesman argued that the murder rate in St Elizabeth is up by 75 per cent, while Manchester's has jumped by 78 per cent, yet no SOEs have been declared for those parishes.
Commissioner of Police Major General Antony Anderson told journalists at Tuesday's press conference that the security forces were aiming to drive down murders by 40 per cent under the new SOEs.
Anderson said that the security forces have created what he termed 300 intelligence packages of persons who are causing problems in the various police divisions.
He indicated that the so-called intelligence packages contain those who are wanted or are persons of interest.
The commissioner noted that there are others who play a part in murders but do not pull the trigger.
“It doesn't mean that those are the only persons who may be detained. When those guys are in custody, murders drop when they go back out they continue to do it,” he said.
Attorney General Dr Derrick McKoy told The Gleaner that there was an attempt to tweak the new regulations to make them more acceptable.
He said that the SOE regulations began in the 1970s and had been modified on several occasions to take into account the changes in the country's laws.
McKoy reasoned that no one in recent times has challenged the SOEs themselves but instead has brought cases against the State when its actors have not followed the regulations.
“The regulations have been challenged. The conduct of the regulations has been challenged, but I don't think states of emergency have been challenged. It is well entrenched in the Constitution,” McKoy said.