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EDITORIAL - A note of caution to Minister Nelson

Published:Tuesday | February 16, 2010 | 12:00 AM

WHILE DWIGHT Nelson's frustration at last week's decision by a judge to grant bail to three accused kidnappers is appreciated, it is important that the security minister contain his anger lest he obscure context and make irrational statements that undermine good intentions.

Like Minister Nelson, this newspaper is deeply concerned about the growing incidence of abductions for ransom in Jamaica - a crime which we feel is grossly under-reported. The police must move aggressively against the apparently burgeoning kidnapping rings.

That, apparently, is what Mr Nelson felt was being done when three persons who were allegedly involved in the abduction of a St Ann businessman, and suspected of being part of a wider kidnapping ring, were released from lock-up. This provides the context for Mr Nelson's sense of grievance.

"The court has given them the opportunity to go out and intimidate witnesses," said Mr Nelson, who characterised kidnapping as being "akin to acts of terrorism, to which bail should not be granted". We make no comment on his former observation.

In the immediate circumstance, Mr Nelson wants the justice minister to suggest bail guidelines to the judiciary.

This would be both a delicate and potentially fraught action. In the absence of legislation, such a move would likely be seen as encroachment on the independence of the judiciary by the political executive, especially one that has dithered on proceeding with a judicial review to determine whether someone considered to be political kith and kin should be extradited to the United States to answer charges of drug running and narcotics smuggling.

The security minister's second line of attack is to reignite debate and, hopefully, the passage of changes to the Bail Act to allow for lengthy detention without bail of persons accused of certain types of murder and/or acts of terrorism, who might intimidate witnesses.

Legitimate concern

The intimidation, and even elimination, of witnesses, as the now acting Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington warned 18 months ago, is a legitimate concern. It is part of the reason why we supported bail reform and other anti-crime legislation when they were proposed by the Government.

However, Mr Nelson must be clear that arbitrary incarceration is not what will be backed. Any new bail arrangement must not remove responsibility from the police to make
prima facie
cases to the courts. Minister Nelson, for example, is perhaps aware of Justice Leighton Pusey's own irritation when he first heard the application for bail in the kidnapping case - which the state resisted - that despite having the accused in lock-up, the police could cobble together "a coherent case".

The larger point is that while changes in the law, as proposed by Mr Nelson, will be useful, that of itself won't be a sufficient deterrent to crime - in all its forms.

It is not about railroading people into prison. The police have to make coherent cases that meet the standards of justice. If justice fails, everything collapses.

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