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JAM | Jan 17, 2021

Lawsuit against US Coast Guard moves forward as Senate gets into choppy ‘Shiprider exchange’

Gavin Riley

Gavin Riley / Our Today

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From left, Luther Patterson, Robert Weir and captain Patrick Ferguson recall their arrest and dehumanising ordeal under the watch of the US Coast Guard. The men were among five Jamaican fisherfolk who have brought a lawsuit against the federal government. (Photo: YouTube)

The United States’ apology for a September 2017 incident, in which five Jamaican fishermen were arrested without charge and abused, may have come too late as a federal judge has approved a lawsuit against the US Coast Guard on Friday (January 15).

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing the Jamaicans, alleges that the Coast Guard dehumanised the fishermen, subjecting them to horrid conditions for more than a month as their families thought they had perished at sea.

“The Coast Guard forcibly held and brutally abused four Jamaican fishermen in captivity for more than a month. The fight for justice and accountability continues,” the ACLU tweeted.

The latest developments in the class action lawsuit come as tensions flared around the Jamaican government’s inaction.

In a sitting of the Senate on Friday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamina Johnson Smith said US authorities apologised for the mishap and that both countries would reassess the controversial Shiprider Agreement.

The saga was a disappointing ordeal for the government, Johnson Smith indicated, as the US Coast Guard failed to communicate critical information on the later dismissal of the case.

“The Jamaican Government expressed, in very clear terms, certain steps key to bridging gaps in implementation as envisaged by the agreement,” Johnson Smith noted.

In the bilateral meetings, Jamaica offered two recommendations to prevent a repeat of the nightmare arrests.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Kamina Johnson Smith.

“One, following search and boarding of intercepted vessels, and two, relating to the status of nationals from the time of grant of the waiver up to the outcome of any legal or judicial action pursued against them,” Johnson Smith stated.

“I am pleased, however, to advise that the bilateral engagement was constructive and frank and undertaken in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. Apologies were extended to the Jamaican side by the United States regarding the handling of the matter,” she added.

A war of words erupted in the Senate chamber as Opposition Spokesperson Lambert Brown slammed the Andrew Holness-led administration as ‘sellouts’.

According to Brown, enough wasn’t done to safeguard the rights of the aggrieved fishermen, and the government, inappropriately “sold out Jamaican interest in this matter”.

Opposition Spokesperson in the Senate, Lambert Brown. (Photo: JIS)

Firing back, Johnson Smith reminded Brown that the faults of the Shiprider Agreement were inherited from the People’s National Party (PNP) government, whose 2016 provisions gave the US more prosecutorial powers over Jamaicans on the high seas.

“If Senator Brown has any sense of that the Jamaican people have been sold out by anyone, he should speak to his current leader of Opposition business in the Senate (Peter Bunting), and the Opposition in its entirety, because it is they who brought the law that allows for waiver over any Jamaican national,” she retorted.

An unphased Brown contended that the law allowed for discretion, which the government has clearly and wrongly exercised.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2019, alleges that the US Coast Guard, despite finding no evidence to suggest drug smuggling, chained the Jamaicans to the deck of their patrol vessel in the blistering sun.

While Jamaican lawmakers sparred in the Senate, a federal judge ruled in favour of the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit in 2019 on behalf of five Jamaican fishermen arrested and abused under the controversial Shiprider Agreement. (Photo: Twitter @ACLU)

The men claim the Coast Guard, which intercepted them while they were lost at sea in Haiti, burned their fishing boat, provided inadequate bedding, fed them rancid food and deprived them of water.

They were also not allowed to wash off the salt and grime from their skin and received little to no medical treatment for their injuries.

Almost naked, the men were stripped of their dignity and refused to make a phone call to their family until they landed in Miami in mid-October.

After detaining the fishermen, the Coast Guard said it sought permission from Jamaica to prosecute them in the US. Jamaica was notified of the arrests and waived their rights, per the Shiprider Agreement.

The men, ultimately not charged with drug crimes, were accused of “making false statements” to prosecutors about the destination of their boat. In the ACLU lawsuit, the men said they pleaded guilty because their lawyers advised it. They served about 10 months and then were deported back to Jamaica.

The US Coast Guard, in a June 2019 statement, denied the allegations, adding: “All suspects are cared for humanely while preserving the security of both the crew and suspects.”

See a short video of the men’s ordeal highlighted by the ACLU below:

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