CASTRIES, May 17, 2011 (IPS) – By their own account, the police said they had been monitoring five men who attempted to rob a restaurant in the south of the island, and in the ensuing gun battle, four were shot and killed, while the fifth died a few days later in hospital.
Autopsies are to be performed on the five men Tuesday. But the May 5 killings have rekindled a simmering debate as to whether the police here are engaging in extrajudicial assassinations, following rumours that some alleged criminals killed since the start of the year were on a death list drawn up by St. Lucia law enforcement officials.
In March, local television showed a former murder suspect displaying a list that he claimed contained his name and photograph as well as 45 others, some of whom have already been killed in alleged gun battles with the police.
“Perhaps what we are doing is exchanging the untrained criminals with guns, who fight mainly among themselves in gang warfare, and replacing them with trained police criminals who wear facial masks sometimes, when they go on their illegal activities and as a rule take no prisoners,” said Denis DaBreo, editor-in-chief of the One Caribbean media grouping here.
“The job of the police is to apprehend and charge and bring to court all criminals. They are supposed to do all in their power not to kill or injure anyone and are allowed to use deadly force only when their lives, or that of someone else, are in immediate threat,” he wrote in his newspaper column.
“If the police use more force than is needed then they have to be charged and brought to court. This has never happened in St. Lucia and it appears that the present establishment is steeped in the fact that it will never happen so they could kill our citizens ad infinitum.”
Police Commissioner Vernon Francois vehemently denies the existence of a death squad within the St. Lucia police force, and has assured the public that recent police shootings are being properly investigated.
“A number of others are going through the court processes so that cases involving killings by police officers are the definitive subject of a review and determination is made as to whether or not the action of the Police is justified,” the Commissioner said in a statement.
In January, police shot and killed one man and seriously injured another during a search for illegal weapons in a section of the capital that has witnessed frequent outbreaks of gang violence.
Attorney Mary Francis, who described the police killing of the five men earlier this month as “alarming”, noted that there have been 10 killings by police officers over a three-month period. “Is this the system of government that we have set up by our constitution and our laws? I would say no, this is not our tradition. Is this the legacy that we want to bequeath for our country?” she asked.
“I don’t wish to be misunderstood and I am saying this at the risk of being criticised… but each and every time we have those police killings I want to repeat and request that an inquest must be held,” she said.
She added that the government’s crackdown on crime, dubbed “Operation Restore Confidence”, cannot restore confidence unless it also includes accountability.
Another human rights advocate, Martinus Francois, who is a brother of the police commissioner, has repeated calls for due process as well as an inquest to determine the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the five bandits.
“I am truly worried at the perceived lack of due process, as criminals should be apprehended and put on trial. This sounds very much like extrajudicial killings, and this is not a form of justice,” he told a recent news conference.
“The role of the police is to apprehend criminals and bring them to justice and not to mete out justice themselves, and it seems to me that the police are embarking on a new policy of shooting to kill,” he added.
One senior government minister has also cautioned that the police run the risk of losing the goodwill of the public who may deem them to be “judge, jury and executioner”.
“We cannot allow the police or anyone else to usurp the authority of any arm of the judiciary because that would be sowing the seeds of anarchy and a more and more aggressive brand of criminality,” Commerce Minister Tessa Mangal said during a recent parliamentary debate here.
St. Lucians have been turning to social media like Facebook to vent their views on the issue, with many expressing support for the police.
“For years, it appeared that the police were banging their heads against a brick [wall],” commented one person, while another summed it up by writing “damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It is good to know the police are now in charge. Investigate if you must, but let them do their work.”
Not everyone agrees, however. “Tranquillizer guns would be a more civil way of doing their jobs” one citizen commented. “Bounty killings is below the least, third world thinking.”
The debate here over police killings here coincides with the annual report released by the London-based Amnesty International on May 13 that police officers in several Caribbean countries, notably Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, are guilty of extrajudicial killings.
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