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Polite talks

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Government and Opposition representatives emerged from Vale Royal last night after approximately two hours of talks that were described as cordial, despite the deep divide between them over the continued use of the state of public emergency (SOE) as a tool to combat criminality.

No statement was made after the discussions, but the Jamaica Observer learnt that a joint communiqu will be issued, most likely today, that should give the country a clearer picture of whether both sides were able to reach an agreement.

Six members of the Government, headed by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, and six from the Opposition, led by Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips, engaged in the discussions that started some time after 7:00 pm.

Last night’s meeting came after the Government and Opposition spent last week jousting over an appropriate date for the talks, with both sides trying to gain political advantage as controversy continued to grow over the Opposition’s vote against a further extension of the SOEs, which had been declared in three separate areas of the country starting last January in St James.

The other areas where the security measure was also in place were St Catherine North, as well as Kingston Western and St Andrew South. However, the Opposition’s vote in Parliament last month resulted in the measure coming to an end in St Catherine North last Wednesday, while it expired last night in Kingston Western and St Andrew South. The SOE will cease to exist in St James on January 31.

Initially, Phillips had declined an invitation from Holness to meet on the matter on December 31, saying that the notice was too short. Instead, Phillips proposed that a team from his side could be assembled for yesterday.

In addition, he suggested that “a preparatory group” should meet prior to yesterday to settle arrangements to include the date, time, list of invitees, agenda for discussion, and other relevant matters.

Phillips had also said that parliamentarian and People’s National Party (PNP) General Secretary Julian Robinson would lead the preparatory group from the Opposition’s side.

Holness had proposed a December 31 meeting at the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) to discuss the issue that has widened the divide between them.

The Opposition, which had supported extensions of the anti-crime measure before, argued that detainees were being subjected to human rights abuses and that the SOE was no longer necessary, given the reduction in crimes, particularly murder.

Phillips had argued that while it may be arguable that the conditions warranting the declaration of an SOE existed at the time it was declared in January last year, they do not exist now.

That stance angered the Government, and Holness last month told the Jamaica Observer that 20 of the 75 individuals still detained under the SOE in St James are some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. He also said that the Opposition’s vote against extending the measure will result in those criminals being released into their communities.

In response, Phillips accused Holness of fear-mongering, saying that there are adequate laws on the books to deal with dangerous criminals who have either committed or are about to commit criminal offences.

He also said that the prime minister should “seek legal guidance rather than threaten that criminal elements will be unleashed, with the clear intent of fear-mongering among citizens”.

As fierce public debate erupted on the issue, Phillips raised the constitutionality of extending the SOE. On December 18, Holness issued an invitation to Phillips to meet before the expiration of the measure to discuss the Opposition’s position and identify solutions that could lead to a consensus in support of the SOEs’ extension “as recommended by the chief of defence staff and the police commissioner”.

Phillips quickly accepted the invitation, but said that he and his team had met with several stakeholders, including private sector leaders, small business operators, church leaders, attorneys from western Jamaica, and civil society. However, in those meetings the Opposition did not find that there was an overwhelming consensus among the stakeholders that the use of emergency powers is the only way to control criminal activity.

Last week, Holness, after concluding two days of consultations with the island’s security chiefs, had expressed hope that the Opposition would have met with him on December 31.

However, Phillips, in response, said he was disappointed that Holness waited 12 days to respond to his letter of December 18 in which the prime minister proposed a meeting to be convened in less than 48 hours.

“That, quite frankly, raises a question of the sincerity of your motives, especially following the issue of an earlier news release from your office erroneously stating that I responded negatively to your invitation. It went further to denigrate the principled and constitutionally correct position of the Opposition,” Phillips said.

“The concern you have expressed with respect to the extraordinarily high level of violent crime in Jamaica is indeed shared by the Opposition. We also acknowledge the appreciable reduction in violent crime you have cited, and commend the security forces who have contributed to the achievement of this welcome development. It should be noted, nevertheless, that this reduction is only relative to 2017 crime statistics, and that the number of murders for the year 2018 exceed every year in the period 2011-2015 when there was no state of public emergency,” Phillips added.

He reiterated that the PNP remains committed to participating in national efforts to enhance the security and safety of Jamaica within the boundaries of the law and the constitution.

However, he said that the Government has provided no evidence to support a constitutional extension of the SOEs, adding that “this view has also been expressed publicly by other noted constitutional experts”.

Holness, in his interview with the Observer, had said that if the 20 dangerous criminals now in detention in St James were released, they would return to their communities, kill witnesses and spread mayhem. He argued that the security forces needed more time to build airtight cases against the men.

He also rubbished the Opposition’s argument that most of what is now being done to control crime in the areas under the SOE can still be done without the emergency measure.

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