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US state department highlights human rights concerns in Jamaica

Published:Wednesday | March 22, 2023 | 11:26 AM
While noting that the government has taken steps to address the issues, the state department highlighted that rights abuses remain a problem. - Contributed photo.

The United States continues to raise concerns about human rights abuses in Jamaica, citing the need for stronger action. 

While noting that the government has taken steps to address the issues, it highlighted that rights abuses remain a problem. 

These and other issues were highlighted in the latest Human Rights Report on Jamaica, produced by the US Department of State, which was published on March 20. 

The state department argues that civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces. 

It highlighted that there were reports of members of the security forces committing abuses in 2022. 

“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of unlawful and arbitrary killings by government security forces; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by the government; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; and the existence of a law criminalising consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, although the government did not enforce the law during the year,” states the report. 

The department did acknowledge that the Jamaican government took some steps to investigate and prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses. 

Nonetheless, it states that there were credible reports that some officials alleged to have committed human rights abuses were not subject to full and swift accountability. 

Meanwhile, on the issue of corruption, the state department argues that the government did not effectively implement the law to combat the problem. 

“There were numerous credible allegations of government corruption, including by officials who sometimes engaged in corrupt practises with impunity, according to media reports and government audits.” 

Here are some highlights from the report:

Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were numerous reports during the year that government security forces committed arbitrary and unlawful killings, and there were hundreds of complaints of abuse and wrongful harm. Most complaints and reports cited the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), both in its roles as an independent agency and as part of joint military-police activity. There were also several reported incidents involving the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). The total number of fatalities involving security forces, justifiable or otherwise, increased over prior years, with 131 reports as of December 13.

Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and Other Related Abuses

There were allegations of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment of individuals in police custody and in correctional facilities. INDECOM (Independent Commission of Investigations) investigated reports of alleged abuse committed by police and prison officials, including the alleged severe beating in August of two inmates at the Horizon Adult Remand Centre in what media reported may have been retaliation for the killing of a corrections officer employed at the facility.

Most reports of abuse to INDECOM described intimidation, excessive physical force in restraint, and restricted access to medical treatment. Reports included several credible allegations of sexual assault by security forces in the year. Representatives of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) expressed concern that there was underreporting by victims, particularly by the vulnerable or persons with mental disabilities.

The government rarely criminally prosecuted members of the security forces for abuses. Many cases faced significant delays due to court backlogs.

Prison and Detention Centre Conditions

Conditions in prisons and detention facilities were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, physical abuse, limited food, poor sanitary conditions, inadequate medical care, and poor administration. Prisoners with mental disabilities and children in juvenile correctional facilities represented the most vulnerable populations facing harsh conditions.

Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention but allows arrest if there is “reasonable suspicion of [a person] having committed or … about to commit a criminal offence.”

The law provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention, and the government generally observed these requirements.

Abuses arose, however, because police regularly ignored the “reasonable suspicion” requirement.

Detention rates were high, particularly in areas subject to focused law enforcement operations, and arraignment procedures were very slow.

Declaration of State of Emergency (SOE) and Zones of special operations (ZOSOs)

The declaration of a state of emergency (SOE) grants the police and military the ability to search, seize, and arrest citizens without a warrant, as was implemented in June throughout the parish of St Catherine and in November across much of the country. The prime minister may declare an SOE for 14 days or fewer; extensions require parliamentary approval. In June, the Supreme Court found some elements of the SOE regulations relating to indefinite detention to be unconstitutional. The government may identify zones of special operations (ZOSOs), which confer to security forces some additional detention authorities such as are found in SOEs.

During the year, the prime minister declared or extended seven ZOSOs that the government viewed as necessary to reduce crime and violence. Some communities operated as ZOSOs for most of the year. Arbitrary and lengthy detentions took place in ZOSOs. Very few of these detentions resulted in charges.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

There were reports of arrests and prolonged periods of detention in which police did not inform the suspect of the official charges.

There were multiple reports that detainees did not have access to legal counsel and that apprehended suspects could not notify family members.

Arbitrary Arrest: Most cases of arbitrary detention were in the parishes of St James, St Catherine, Kingston, and St Andrew. The government declared ZOSOs and deployed the military to these areas to support police.

Under these orders, security forces carried out wide-ranging campaigns of detention and incarceration in attempts to contain violence. There were few official investigations or prosecutions of security force members involved in arbitrary arrests.

Pretrial Detention: Lockups are intended for short-term detentions of 48 hours or less, but often the government held suspects in these facilities for much longer periods without charge or while awaiting trial. A lack of administrative followthrough after an arrest created situations where persons were incarcerated without any accompanying paperwork. In some cases – days, weeks, months, or years later – authorities could not ascertain the reason for the arrest.

Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary or unlawful interference, the law gives broad powers of search and seizure to security personnel. The law allows warrantless searches of a person, vehicle, ship, or boat if police have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

On occasion, police were accused of conducting searches without warrants or reasonable suspicion. In the areas with ZOSOs and SOEs, government security forces took biometrics from temporarily detained persons.

The Office of the Public Defender and civil society organisations challenged this practise, arguing that retaining the information and failing to delete it after police released the detained person effectively criminalised persons who subsequently were not charged. Security forces detained wide swaths of the population in ZOSOs and SOEs under broad arrest authorities.

Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these related rights. The government did not provide documentation in a timely fashion for Jamaican nationals ordered removed from foreign countries, leaving some individuals awaiting repatriation for more than a year.

Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively.

There were numerous reports of government corruption, and corruption was a significant problem of public concern. Media and civil society organisations criticised the government for being slow and at times reluctant to prosecute corruption cases.

Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials, however, including Prime Minister Holness, publicly criticised the work of domestic human rights groups as contributing to the country's high rate of violent crime.

The government then failed to protect human rights advocates from death threats and other intimidation caused in part by this criticism.

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