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Senators clash over case involving US detention of Jamaican fishermen

The voices of Foreign Affairs Minister Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, Opposition Senator Lambert Brown, Senate President Tom Tavares-Finson, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Steven Watt and Opposition Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs Lisa Hanna
 
Tempers flared Friday morning in the Senate as Opposition members criticised the Government's handling of the case involving the four Jamaican fishermen detained by the US Coast Guard in 2017.
 
Government Senator and Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith said she became aware of the incident on Thursday, and an investigation into the incident has been launched. 
 
The Foreign Affairs Ministry is investigating whether the US Coast Guard breached any agreements with Jamaica in its detention of the four Jamaican fishermen who reported being kept in conditions similar to slave ships.
 
It has been suggested that the Coast Guard acted unlawfully by detaining the men without contacting the Jamaican authorities.
 
On Friday, Opposition Senator K.D Knight queried whether any breach occurred and what action the Government will take if any is found.
 
Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith indicated she was unable to answer the questions, but when pressed further, said the issue was "sensitive" and the government was "enquiring about the matter." 
 
She said the government had not received any communication from the US consulate headquarters in Kingston regarding the incident.  
 
Her response drew the ire of Opposition Senator Lambert Brown who questioned the level of debriefing when someone is deported to Jamaica.
 
Senator Johnson Smith explained that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for the consular aspect of deportation but the Ministry of National Security handles all other matters. 
 
She reiterated that an investigation is underway, however, Senator Brown was still not satisfied, questioning whether the government had contacted the US Embassy and arguing that he wanted to know "what the government had done to protect our citizens." 
 
Senator Johnson Smith responded, noting that the Ministry has not yet contacted the U.S. Embassy regarding the incident. 
 
"Before any responsible minister were to call in a representative member of the diplomatic core, one would presume that that minister would have obtained as many facts as possible about the matter. I have indicated to the Senate that we're investigating, we're seeking to understand the case more because it only came to our attention yesterday. Mr. President, I have therefore acted responsibly," she insisted.  
 
Permission granted? 
 
US Coast Guard spokesman Lieutenant Commander Scott McBride reportedly told a website that the agency requested permission from the Government of Jamaica to prosecute the men in the United States. 
 
He said the agency then detained the men and later received consent from the Jamaican government.
 
He also said that the agency's officers saw the men get rid of numerous packages of marijuana, and that the officers later recovered some 600 pounds of the drug.
 
However, drug charges were never brought against the men.
 
Lawsuit 
 
It could be 60 days before there is a response from the US Coast Guard to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the four Jamaican fishermen.
 
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday.
 
The union is hoping the case will result in compensation for the fishermen as well as an end to the alleged wanton detention of people on the high seas by the coast guard.
 
Steven Watt, lawyer for the ACLU, said he is not expecting proceedings to start for another two months to give the US Coast Guard time to respond to the suit.  
 
Convene meeting 
 
Opposition Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs Lisa Hanna wants the government to swiftly convene a meeting with the four fishermen who were detained by the US Coast Guard.
 
"If it is that what the fishermen say is incorrect - and I have no other information to disbelieve them - then I am a little horrified that our nationals could be out at sea for two months in the conditions that they were and that we don't act upon the information. I think it is incumbent on the Jamaican government to meet with these individuals to hear their side of the story and certainly act in an appropriate manner," she told RJR News on Friday. 
 
Ms Hanna said the Parliamentary Opposition is doing its own investigation into the September 2017 incident. 
 


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