St Lucia may launch prosecutions of extrajudicial killings
By Caribbean News Now contributor
CASTRIES, St Lucia — According to reports coming out of Saint Lucia, the authorities there may be preparing to launch prosecutions of those thought to be responsible for a number of alleged extrajudicial killings in 2010 and 2011 by members of the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force (RSLPF) during a highly controversial security initiative called Operation Restore Confidence (ORC).
It remains to be seen whether the anticipated prosecution of those responsible, whether by the director of public prosecutions (DPP), or by a special prosecutor as indicated last year by Prime Minister Allen Chastanet, will simply be window dressing designed to create the perception of credible judicial processes and prosecutions or if it will actually bring to justice those responsible within the RSLPF for gross violations of human rights.
Local inquests have so far concluded that six of the shootings were justified but relatives of the victims have insisted they were murdered.
The United States also indicated it did not have confidence in the outcomes of the inquests and, in 2013, Saint Lucia was prohibited by the terms of what is commonly referred to as the “Leahy Law” from receiving security-related assistance from the US as a result of “credible evidence of extrajudicial killings of 17 people in 2010-2011” by the island’s security forces.
[Note: There is a discrepancy between the US State Department’s number of 17 given in a comment last year and the more commonly reported 12 such killings.]
In response to the US sanctions, in August 2013 the Saint Lucia government requested the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) to investigate and report on all alleged extrajudicial killings by members of the RSLPF.
The report was prepared by a team of investigators from the Jamaican Constabulary Force comprising eight investigators, including a ballistic expert, a legal advisor, a data entry specialist, a cyber-crime analyst, and detective investigators, and described local police officers operating in “an environment of impunity and permissiveness designed to achieve the desired results,” with senior commanders showing “willful blindness.”
According to the report, police in Saint Lucia kept “death lists” and carried out extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals in an attempt to minimise the negative effects of violent crime on the island’s economically critical tourism industry.
The report suggested that “the crime problem in Saint Lucia is facilitated by corrupt politicians/government officials, business persons and police officers.”
According to the report, RSLPF officers “staged” a dozen shootings and reported them as murders by unknown assailants, planting weapons at the scene.
|Former prime minister Stephenson King|
At the time of ORC, then prime minister Stephenson King, now minister with responsibility for infrastructure, ports, energy and labour, issued a public warning to criminals that “there will be no refuge, no stone will be left unturned and there will be no hiding place for anyone”.
Five of the men shot dead were killed in a single operation.
King has denied claims that he was involved in the execution of ORC or that he instructed the police to use their firearms to bring local crime under control.
King said that ORC was intended to provide intelligence and surveillance and to encourage the public to cooperate with the police.
In an address to the nation in March 2015, following completion of the IMPACS investigation and submission of its report, King’s successor as prime minister, Dr Kenny Anthony, said: “The report confirms that ‘the blacklist or death lists’ referenced by the media, human rights organisations, victims’ families and citizens alike did exist.
“More alarmingly, the investigators report that all the shootings reviewed were ‘fake encounters’ staged by the police to legitimise their actions. The weapons supposedly found on the scene of the alleged extrajudicial killings were from sources other than the victims.”
The investigators also reported that, in the course of the investigation, some senior officers did not co-operate with them. They reported that the main server of the computers used by some members of the high command of the police force was deliberately tampered with. In two instances, the operating systems of the computers were altered to place the supposed contents beyond “the timeline of [the] investigation”.
The Jamaican investigators recommended that all police officers involved in the shootings be prosecuted; nevertheless, such decisions would be made by the DPP, Anthony said.
|Former prime minister Dr Kenny Anthony|
Declining to release the report to the public, Anthony said it can endanger the lives of people who gave evidence and compromise future prosecution – on the face of it a startling official acknowledgement that RSLPF officers were still potentially ready, willing and able to engage in the extrajudicial killing of prosecution witnesses.
In January last year, Anthony described as “misplaced and unjustified” assertions made by the US embassy in Bridgetown, Barbados, that no meaningful action had been taken by his government to prosecute those responsible.
Anthony claimed that the executive’s role in the matter was fulfilled upon delivery of the IMPACS report to the DPP in March 2015.
“Indeed, the director of public prosecutions herself publicly stated that she never read the report until a full six months following her receipt of it. Up until the time that the DPP proceeded on pre-retirement leave, in December of 2015, she never requested the government of Saint Lucia to facilitate her in interviewing the investigators, whether in Saint Lucia or Jamaica,” he said.
Anthony also refuted the assertions by the DPP that her office was not provided with the requisite resources to prosecute the matter.
The then DPP had claimed that the IMPACS report had little or no prosecutorial value since, not only were its conclusions based largely on hearsay but any physical evidence was removed to Jamaica, where it apparently remains.
Former member of parliament Richard Frederick confirmed that view at the time, saying: “I am not sure that the exercise was worthwhile because what the report contains is essentially persons speaking out of emotion and the veracity of what they said was never tried or tested through cross examination.”
He said that raised questions of credibility, especially when the persons giving testimony are related to the individuals who met their demise.
“It is not a situation where the DPP can do what she pleases,” he continued, “given the fact that in some instances a court of competent jurisdiction has already handed down findings regarding the justification or lack thereof for the killings.”
He noted that, once the court has ruled, the DPP cannot then proceed to investigate criminal liability.
Anthony later alluded to the possibility of reopening the six inquests that had been completed, all resulting in a verdict of death by lawful act. The remaining six are still apparently pending, despite Anthony’s claim in 2015 that action has been taken to expedite them.
In July of last year, the US made it plain to the then new government in Saint Lucia that the ongoing failure to bring to justice those responsible within the local police force prevents the US from reconsidering the sanctions imposed under the Leahy Law.
“We have made it clear to the current Saint Lucian administration and prior administrations that the government of Saint Lucia’s failure to bring to justice those responsible within the RSLPF for gross violations of human rights through credible judicial processes and prosecutions, where appropriate, prevents the United States from reconsidering the suspension of assistance to the RSLPF,” a State Department spokesperson said at the time.
Nevertheless, the US embassy in Bridgetown recently donated computers and other equipment worth EC$100,000 (US$37,000) to Saint Lucia’s Crown Prosecutions Service, claiming that it was a “civilian agency” and therefore not part of the island’s security forces subject to Leahy Law restrictions, notwithstanding that the “civilian agency” in question is responsible for the ongoing failure to prosecute those involved in the extrajudicial killings and is therefore, at least in part, responsible for the impunity still enjoyed by those individuals, which is what triggered the application of the Leahy Law in the first place.
The US ambassador has also reportedly “pledged” that the US government will fund a new border security entity in Saint Lucia as part of the island’s security forces, an apparently politically tone-deaf promise at the same time as the US is planning to cut funding for its own coastguard.
In what is regarded by some as poetic justice, the current United Workers Party (UWP) government in Saint Lucia is now faced with the difficulty of resolving a seemingly intractable problem that it created in the first place some seven years ago – how to satisfy the United States on the one hand that the issue is being dealt with in a credible manner and on the other hand avoid serious unrest within the local police force if prosecutions are launched, leading to a further deterioration in the security situation in the island, and a possible overthrow of the current government.
In fact, minister of national security, Hermangild Francis, is said to have expressed concern to other government officials that elements within the RSLPF that are well connected to criminal gangs on the island are capable of causing serious problems.
|Current prime minister Allen Chastanet|
King, who, as prime minister at the time, must presumably bear ultimate responsibility for the ORC fallout, is back in government as a cabinet minister, and Chastanet, as then tourism minister, now prime minister, was also part of the decision-making process in 2010-2011.
During the King administration, Chastanet also had a financial interest in supporting ORC and in making sure the northern part of the island was safe and open to US, Canadian, British and other European visitors, since his family owns a hotel in that area.
Little or nothing was done during the remainder of the UWP administration, or in the early years after the St Lucia Labour Party took office in November 2011, to mount an effective investigation into the killings, until the government’s hand was forced in 2013 by the US sanctions.
Shortly after the 2016 general election in Saint Lucia in which the UWP regained power, Chastanet announced plans to establish a tribunal, with one member from Britain, one from the EU, one from the US and two from Saint Lucia, to look into the IMPACS report and present a road map moving forward.
However, he later abandoned the proposal to appoint a special tribunal, apparently having been told that this would be unconstitutional and compromise the judicial process.
Chastanet then indicated that the government will finance a “special prosecutor” to prosecute those alleged of carrying out the killings, although no progress seems to have yet been made in this respect.
According to local accounts, any attempt by the Chastanet government to pursue prosecutions, probably against low level members of the RSLPF, will be mere optics, which will end up with them being acquitted, since the physical evidence has been exported to a foreign country and witnesses may be afraid to testify, leaving the actual culprits to enjoy continued impunity.
“In fact, if the United States is really interested in aiding the prosecution of those responsible for extrajudicial killings, perhaps the US, Canada and/or the UK should establish a witness protection programme off the island,” one commentator suggested.
According to a US government source, “The US political asylum programme would be the most effective vehicle to be utilised for vulnerable witnesses to get the ball rolling on prosecution of those responsible, since the United States recognizes the right of asylum for individuals as specified by international and federal law.”
However, local sources have noted that some of the potential witnesses have already become victims of the spate of murders on the island in the last two or three years, which is not going to encourage any remaining individuals to testify.
“It’s troubling why human rights groups on the island or elsewhere have never sought to bring this matter before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, since the same charge of crimes against humanity should apply to Stephenson King, Allen Chastanet, and others involved, as were brought against Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, and Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic,” said another observer.
“The US government via the State Department should not be fooled by Allen Chastanet’s attempt to pretend that his administration is making an honest effort to hold those responsible accountable. After all it was Chastanet who duped Saint Lucian citizens into believing during his election campaign last year that he would guarantee visa-free travel to the US if elected.”