By Melanius Alphonse
Caribbean News Now associate editor
CASTRIES, St Lucia — Just days after national security minister, Senator Hermangild Francis, attempted to blame Saint Lucian whistleblowers for the imposition of Leahy Law sanctions on the island’s security forces by the US, former MP Peter Josie has now attempted to shift blame onto the opposition Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) despite the fact that ultimate culpability rests with a previous iteration of the current United Workers Party (UWP) government.
All this is also taking place amid concerns that Saint Lucia may be vulnerable to the provisions of the so-called Global Magnitsky Act (GMA), which allows the US government to sanction corrupt government officials implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.
The original Magnitsky Act was a bipartisan bill passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2012, intending to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009.
In 2016, the US Congress enacted the Global Magnitsky Act, which applies globally and allows the US government to sanction human rights offenders anywhere in the world, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the US.
The federal government has used the Act to impose sanctions on 52 officials from three countries, namely, Venezuela, South Sudan and Russia.
In the first policy response by the Trump administration to the murder of Saudi Arabia writer and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the US Treasury announced Magnitsky Act sanctions on 17 Saudi officials in relation to their role in Khashoggi’s death.
According to Canadian foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, “We also have Magnitsky legislation in place and that is a tool that we have found very useful in our foreign policy. And that is certainly something which in the coming days Canada is actively considering.”
Earlier this month, Francis apparently came to the belated realisation that police officers accused of extrajudicial killings during the 2010/2011 Operation Restore Confidence (ORC) in Saint Lucia must be prosecuted if the sanctions imposed on the island’s security forces by the US under the so-called Leahy Law are to be lifted.
The operation led by the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force (RSLPF) was conceived by the then UWP government to contain a violent crime wave but, following the operation, members of the RSLPF were accused of a number of extrajudicial killings that, in the absence of any official action to hold those responsible to account, eventually led to the US sanctions under federal law that prohibits foreign security forces credibly accused of human rights abuses from receiving US-sponsored assistance.
Eleven criminal suspects were allegedly killed by the police during Operation Restore Confidence but no one responsible for the killings has ever been prosecuted and, in fact, even inquests into the deaths also became delayed.
According to a report by Jamaican police officers under the aegis of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), commissioned by the subsequent SLP administration, “Investigators reported that all the shootings reviewed were ‘fake encounters’ staged by the police to legitimise their actions… weapons were planted on the scene of the shootings… and a number of the shootings were done by police officers but were listed in murder statistics as attributable to unknown assailants.”
Francis also continued to lay blame on “certain Saint Lucians” for the imposition of the Leahy sanctions, instead of placing culpability squarely where it should remain: with the government ministers in the previous Stephenson King administration and police officials responsible for the ORC debacle in the first place.
In what many in Saint Lucia regard as poetic justice, the current UWP government is now faced with the difficulty of resolving a seemingly intractable problem that it created in the first place some eight 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.
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 current prime minister, Allen Chastanet, as then tourism minister, was also part of the decision-making process.
In 2012, local inquests concluded that six of the shootings were justified but the US indicated it did not have confidence in the outcomes of the hearings. Relatives of the victims have insisted they were murdered.
“The Americans accepted the coroner’s report. There was no noise about it, initially. It’s when they started getting contrary information from reputable Saint Lucians that the US authorities started questioning the validity of the inquests. They were made to believe the government of the day had manipulated the coroner’s inquest,” Francis said, once again apparently attempting to gloss over a fundamental aspect of the matter, namely, that not all inquests have been held and/or completed, some eight years after the events in question.
In August 2016, shortly after returning to office, Chastanet, as new leader of the current UWP administration, indicated that the government will finance a “special prosecutor” to prosecute those alleged of carrying out the killings.
The incoming government also said it was committed to “implementing the 31 recommendations in the IMPACS report” and proposed to set up a tribunal, with one member from Britain, one from the EU, one from the US and two from Saint Lucia, to look at the matter and present a road map moving forward.
Since then, nothing more has been heard of either proposal.
However, in a major departure from protocol, Francis, in speaking to local media, outlined three possible outcomes should the findings of the IMPACS investigation come before the courts in the form of “credible prosecutions” as stipulated by the US State Department.
“The director of public prosecutions (DPP) can say he does not have sufficient evidence to go forward and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. Secondly, those charged can be convicted or the charges against them dismissed. They can be acquitted,” Francis said, adding, without offering any justification, “The US will accept whatever verdict is handed down following prosecution of the IMPACS report.”
In making this comment, Francis again appears to disregard the US requirement of “credible prosecutions”, not simply window dressing prosecutions designed to get out from under the Leahy sanctions.
According to a local defence attorney, “This is rather intriguing coming from a former deputy police commissioner of the [RSLPF] and presumable someone with a law degree, currently minister for national security, who possibly advises the government of Saint Lucia, has the ability to proffer this rendition of a verdict, remote from the court of law. This is a remarkable personal gift to have and an exceptional fortune to behold!”
Nevertheless, expressing confidence in the DPP, Daasrean Greene, Francis said his government is doing its best to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion and that there is “light at the end of the tunnel – unlike certain people who would want to interfere with the work of the DPP, this government accepts that the DPP must be left to perform his duties without any outside influence.”
The DPP’s task in this respect reportedly faces a number of legal and practical obstacles, however.
First, the DPP’s hands may be tied as regards prosecution in those instances where inquests concluded the police killings were justified, unless steps are taken to overturn the results of those inquests and hold new ones.
Second, the IMPACS report itself is said to be is largely comprised of hearsay, with no substantive evidence, which be another reason why the DPP and/or his predecessor has been unable to initiate any prosecutions without new investigations, giving rise to the question of who will undertake any such new investigations since the RSLPF can hardly be relied upon to investigate itself in any credible manner.
Third, such physical evidence that was uncovered by the IMPACS investigators has reportedly been taken back with them to Jamaica, thus allowing defence attorneys to question the chain of custody.
Recently weighing in on the situation, Josie said, “The only step available to bring this to a conclusion is by a Commission of Inquiry under the Commission of Inquiry Act CAP 17.03 Laws of Saint Lucia. A commission of inquiry, being an appropriate judicial process in accordance with the laws of Saint Lucia, would obligate the United States to accept its results.”
It is, however, impossible to see how this advances the matter, since any commission of inquiry has no power of criminal investigation or prosecution and would only produce a report and make recommendations, in other words, not even as comprehensive a result as was achieved by the IMPACS report, which recommended that all police officers involved in the shootings be prosecuted.
Josie also attempts now to blame the SLP for not appointing such a commission of inquiry instead of commissioning the IMPACS report, again ignoring the fact that the previous and current UWP administrations were unable or unwilling to do anything about the situation they themselves created in the first place.
In response to Josie’s assertions, one observer quipped, “Was he born an idiot or does he take lessons? ORC and the IMPACS report is now the fault of the Labour government? What has the Chastanet government done in the last two years except to talk about it?”
Moreover, Josie creates a false equivalence between ORC under the Stephenson King government – the proximate cause of the imposition of the Leahy Law sanctions – and the IMPACS report commissioned by the Kenny Anthony SLP administration, the investigative report of the damage that was already done by ORC.
Furthermore, the history of previous commissions of inquiry in Saint Lucia illustrates their uselessness based on those already done, collecting dust and mold in government offices. In particular, value for money and remedial action to impede future misdeeds has been nonexistent.