Commentary Jamaica Magazine

The gov’t sanctions’guilty until proven innocent’

Dear Friends,
Despite a claim by the Jamaican constitution that citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty, events in recent weeks have confirmed the experience of many Jamaicans that what obtains in practice is that one is guilty if so accused by the police until proven innocent.

The reminder of this ugly fact was none other than senior police officer Reneto Adams, head of the Crime Management Unit (CMU). The CMU, it should be recalled, was set up by the prime minister to fight crime but is now a proven death squad and purveyor of terror within inner city communities.

Adams shocked Jamaicans with his bold claim that the concept of being innocent until proven guilty was mere “semantics.” He accused the United Nations, Amnesty International and local human rights groups of being set up to protect criminals. He went on to claim that 70% of Jamaicans are involved in some kind of criminal activity.

Given Adams’ notorious reputation, his involvement in the killing of seven youths at a house in Braeton last year (now before a coroner’s court) and his involvement in last year’s killing of 25 people in Western Kingston (a videotape shows him casually firing his high-powered rifle into a populated area), and involvement in other notorious cases of extra judicial killings (Punkie on Jacques Road), one would have thought that such comments would be cause for some form of embarrassment or concern within the government.

But true to form there was no official response from the government. The minister of national security declined on a television program to make any comment. The police commissioner made no official response except when pressed to try and rationalize Adams’ statements.

In the interim police killings have continued at the normal pace of 150 per year. The latest police killing is that of a seven-year-old boy in the Lawrence Tavern area of Kingston. The police claim as usual that they were returning fire and the boy got killed in the crossfire. As is the case in almost all police shootings, the residents tell a completely different story, i.e., that there was no shootout that the police fired their guns indiscriminately. The residents suggested that they were trying to kill the boy’s father.

In response to public outrage the police commissioner showed up to offer condolence and money to the family. But ever loyal to his troops he claimed that no one knew who killed the boy thereby giving credence to the police story of a shootout. It is not known if the boy’s family accepted the money.

Most Jamaicans are now fully aware that the state has given the police de facto power to carry out extra judicial killings. The silence and indifference to egregious acts of brutality is proof enough. Political parties avoid the people’s cry for justice by conveniently keeping the matter out of the election campaign.

Thus when Adams dismisses the notion that one is innocent until proven guilty he is merely expressing the reality of what obtains in practice both at the level of the police administering swift punishment or the courts and lockups making innocence a very difficult proposition for a poor person to prove.

Similarly, police accusation that human rights organizations are protecting criminals is a reflection of the consequences of police power to define who is a criminal. In the mind of the police all that is required to make a person a criminal is an accusation.

According to this twisted police logic to oppose police maltreatment of such accused persons is to be protecting “criminals.” It is also a wedge being used to pressure and intimidate human rights groups into silence.

Adams, for example, is reportedly ready to arrest human rights groups that take pictures and “spy” on him while he is executing his duties. None other than the minister of justice has lent his support to this form of harassment by wailing against “civic groups” who seek to displace the state.

It is now the prime minister’s turn to use his campaign for a fourth term to call for unconditional support to the police. The vexed question of brutality and corruption is never mentioned. So too is the silence in the campaign of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party.

As to how long the social fabric will withstand this myopic obsession with power and disregard for justice and human rights only time will tell.

Lloyd D’Aguilar
Jamaicans United Against Police Brutality

About the author

Merrick A Andrew