Prime Minister Andrew Holness on Sunday took a swipe at critics of states of emergency (SOEs), questioning whether the Government should be “crippled” by “an academic debate” on the constitutionality of the emergency measures.
Seven SOEs were declared in the rural police divisions of St James, Westmoreland and Hanover, and in the Corporate Area in the St Andrew South, Kingston Western, Kingston Central and Kingston Eastern Police divisions on Sunday.
In pointing out that the murder rate in some of the areas that were declared SOEs ranged from 47 per 100,000 to as high as 100 per 100,000, Holness said that is not normal for any country.
Additionally, he argued fiercely that a thousand murders per year is also not normal, and required urgent action.
“How is that normal? How is that not an emergency? And should the Government be crippled by an academic debate about the constitutionality of the measure while people in Jamaica are dying?” questioned the prime minister.
“What do I say to the family of that young man whose head was taken and kicked around? What does the Opposition say to them? Do we have not all a responsibility to save lives? And should we allow more people to die while we satisfy ourselves about an academic issue, because it is purely academic?” he further quizzed.
“Every society must have powers to deal with exceptional circumstances and emergencies,” he opined.
The Government recently amended the Emergency Powers Act, despite the Act being before the Court of Appeal.
Clause 2 of the principal Act has been amended to include a definition for a ‘period of public disaster’, which would reflect a similar definition in the section of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Constitution.
The penalty provisions were also amended to include a new provision that will give the relevant minister the power to change the penalties by order, subject to affirmative action.
The Government had largely relied on the legislation to enforce the use of the SOEs as its main crime-fighting tool.
That was until it was struck down as unconstitutional by a Supreme Court ruling in September last year. Five men who had been detained for extended periods brought the matter to court and prevailed after the judge ruled that their detention was unlawful.
The Holness-led Government has since appealed that decision by the judge.
Meanwhile, Holness on Sunday did not shy away from admitting that the Government has “pioneered the use of the SOE in responding to what can only be described as a national emergency.
“We have used the extra powers given in the declaration of states of emergency to attenuate the (crime) problem, and we have used it in such a way that we are respectful of the human rights and dignity of the citizens and, at the same time, whenever we have used the SOEs, it has brought down murders and has returned a sense of safety and security both to the communities in which we have implemented them, and nationally,” the prime minister asserted.
In noting that the issue of the constitutionality of the SOEs remains before the court, Holness said the emergency measure remains a legitimate crime prevention tool and, as such, will be utilised until the courts have decided otherwise.
“So the political debate is one which surrounds whether or not the tool is constitutional, and that is a debate which is a legitimate one. We don’t, in any way, shy from it, and it is proceeding (in the Appeal Court).
“The Attorney General has been very effective in working through the issues that are involved, but until there is a definitive ruling on the matter, the tool remains available legitimately so, because there are emergencies for which the Government must respond,” he declared.
In elaborating on those “emergencies”, the prime minister pointed to the recent murder of a man whose head was decapitated and sent to his family members.
That act, according to Holness, has introduced, among other things, a new level of barbarity that threatens to undermine the Jamaican state.
“It is one thing to commit the ultimate act of a murder, but when you start to see a devolution into what can only be described as the ultimate barbarity, savagery, a competition for cruelty, (and) the worse of the worse, where you only see these kinds of actions happening in war zones where someone can be beheaded and their heads used as a football (and) sent back to the families,” he indicated.
“So yes, we are seeing an increase in murders, but we are also seeing a new trend of savagery and barbarity in violence which can only be… designed to undermine confidence in the state, (and) to increase the fear and panic and to disrupt the society.
“So for us we have to respond to this emergency,” indicated Holness.