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31 March 2003

Murder in Jamaica

When fear of crime overrides respect for human rights, the results can be lethal

By Decca Aitkenhead

Here is a statistic that looks like a misprint. Since 1999, the police in Jamaica have shot dead more than 600 people. It works out at three every week. Early one March morning two years ago, officers managed to kill seven in one house in the space of an hour. Even by their own standards, this was outstanding. Their account of how it happened, however, was unexceptional – just another example of a dubious official line on deaths that take place at police hands.

As with every other one of the 600 killings, no officer was convicted. None was even charged. On an island with one of the highest murder rates in the world, even senior politicians seem to believe that if the police are killing criminals, it might be no bad thing. The minister of national security declared last year: “There is no human right unless there is order.”

What took place in Jamaica that morning is the subject of a report published by Amnesty International. According to the police, on 14 March 2001, officers went at dawn to an address in Braeton, a village just outside Kingston. They approached the house, intending to arrest a man in connection with a murder. Calling out in the dark to identify themselves, the officers came under heavy fire from the house. They shot back in self-defence. When all was quiet they entered the house, to find seven young men dead.

Amnesty examined the ballistic evidence for this version of events. The guns that the police recovered from the house had fired only 11 shots, and no officer had been wounded. The victims, however, had been hit 46 times in total – a remarkable feat of accuracy by officers claiming to be under heavy fire themselves, and shooting from a distance in the dark.

“The striking statistic,” observed David Holly, a retired British army major who studied the case, “is the 15 shots to the head, out of a total of 46 fired at seven bodies. An extraordinary ratio. Furthermore, six out of the seven dead had shots to the head; an unbelievable ratio.”

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The fatal hit rate becomes less incomprehensible when you learn how neighbours in Braeton describe what they heard. One was awoken by the first shot; after three bangs, there was silence, then a barrage of explosions, then silence. “Then there was a high-pitched sound, as a man was heard begging for his life. A man was begging for mercy. ‘Officer, officer! No, officer, nuh kill me,’ the man cried. Gunshots followed his plea.” Others living nearby heard more voices screaming for their lives, each cut short by explosions. “The policemen took bodies from the house, one by one, and packed them like kindling in the back of police jeeps.”

By leaving the house empty and unguarded, the police destroyed vital forensic evidence. But autopsies were performed on the bodies, and were observed by an Amnesty pathologist, who concluded: “The police explanation about what happened cannot be correct.”

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In the opinion of a Surrey police officer who examined the ballistics, when two of the victims died, “Both were lying on the floor with their heads held still, by placing a foot on their necks.” Major Holly’s conclusion was unequivocal: “The fact that six all died of gunshot wounds to the head is highly suspicious, and more in keeping with summary executions.”

Official accounts of many fatal shootings by the Jamaican police follow a similar pattern. In a random sample of 47 cases, police claimed to have been fired upon first in all but three. If so, they would have expected to sustain the greater injuries – and yet they suffered only six woundings, but killed the person firing at them every time. In combat, you should expect to see one fatality for every three wounded.

The head of the crime management unit, Senior Superintendent Reneto Adams, is something of a celebrity in Jamaica. Babies, even pet dogs, have been named after him. Yet Adams describes a defendant’s right to the presumption of innocence as “cosmetic”, an “intellectual statement” or “diplomatic word”. The government has made no effort to correct him.

Jamaican journalists have accused Amnesty of “imperialist interference”, and the government has attacked it for sabotaging the island’s tourism industry. To many in Jamaica, Braeton was a victory for law and order. Adams assured the public within hours of the shootings that the seven dead men were a criminal gang of murderers who “had been found and dealt with”.

The terrible truth was that not one of the young men had a criminal record.

Jamaica’s police executions are a tiny reminder of what happens when human rights are dispensed with in the interests of public security.

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