The Shiprider Agreement is a memorandum of understanding which among other things, gives the US Coast Guard authority board Jamaican vessels on the high seas, in deterring the movement of illicit drugs through Jamaican territorial waters from South America to the United States. It puts a framework in place for the exercise of jurisdiction in each nation’s continuous zone.
Opposition Senator KD Knight queried whether the government had been made aware of the detention of the fishermen by the US when the incident took place and whether any breach of the agreement occurred.
He noted that the issue came to public attention on Thursday and expressed alarm that the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade “is reading from her smartphone to make a statement to the Senate, and after the passage of 24 hours, cannot tell Jamaicans whether or not the Shiprider Agreement was relevant or whether it was breached and what steps will Jamaica be taking”.
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 five Jamaican fishermen who reported being kept in conditions similar to slave ships, she advised the Senate.
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 asked Johnson Smith if she had called in US officials locally about the “slave-like treatment of the Jamaican fishermen who were held unjustly by the US authorities”.
He charged that the treatment of the Jamaican fishermen, who were detained for more than a month aboard US Coast Guard vessels, was appalling, noting that the “rights and liberties of our Jamaican brothers” were impacted.
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.
However, US Coast Guard spokesman Lieutenant Commander Scott McBride reportedly told the Associated Press 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.
A lawsuit was filed on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, on behalf of four of the five Jamaican fishermen: Dexter Weir, Patrick Wayne Ferguson, David Roderick Williams, and Luther Fian Patterson. the fifth Jamaican George Thompson chose not joined the suit.
The suit claimed that “after stopping their fishing boat in the Caribbean Sea, the Coast Guard seized the fishermen; removed them from their boat, which Coast Guard officers then destroyed; forced them to strip naked, supplying them with paper-thin coveralls; stripped naked, given white, paper-thin overalls and disposable slippers to wear instead, and subsequently chained by their ankles to metal cables on multiple Coast Guard ships which made stops in Guantanamo Bay, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Miami.
They were held incommunicado for more than a month, all while denying them access to shelter, basic sanitation, proper food and medical care.”
The case filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, said “On September 14, 2017, the Coast Guard seized the men in international waters off the coast of Haiti. The Coast Guard destroyed their Jamaican-registered boat, the Jossette WH 478 (the “Jossette”), and detained the men, chaining them to the open decks of four Coast Guard ships for over a month in patently inhumane conditions.”
For all but one week of their detention, the Coast Guard kept the men outdoors on the decks of those ships and exposed to the elements at all times, even as they sailed into a hurricane. The men’s skin burned and blistered in the sun. They were drenched and chilled by rain and sea water. The Coast Guard deprived the men of adequate bedding, food and water, as well as washing and sanitation facilities.
Coast Guard officers also deprived the men of medical treatment for injuries they sustained on board. They were rarely permitted to wash the salt and grime from their skin. The Coast Guard left their wounds untreated for weeks. One of the men had to have two teeth pulled due to infections. Three of them still suffer from persistent fungal infections.
The Coast Guard held the men completely incommunicado, refusing their repeated and desperate pleas to contact their families in Jamaica to let them know they were alive. On each of the four ships, Coast Guard officers told the men that it was against policy to allow them to call their families. The men knew that their families would assume they had perished at sea if they did not hear from them after their disappearance during a fishing trip.
As the weeks ground on with no end to their captivity in sight, the men became so fearful, distressed, and hopeless about their situation that they contemplated taking their own lives by jumping overboard; only thoughts of their loved ones back home—and their chains—prevented them from doing so.
The Coast Guard finally delivered the men to Miami after more than a month of secret detention at sea. Although the Coast Guard claims it initially apprehended the men because it suspected that they were trafficking marijuana, not even a trace of marijuana was ever found onboard the Jossette or on any of the men. The men were neither tried nor convicted of any drug-related offense.
Instead, the men were charged under 18 U.S.C. § 2237(a)(2)(B) with providing the Coast Guard with false information about their intended destination during the Coast Guard’s initial boarding of the Jossette.
They pled guilty to that charge only because they were advised by their attorneys that doing so would guarantee their return home to their families in the shortest time possible and that fighting the charge could require them to spend additional months, if not years, in pretrial detention in a country that they never sought to enter.
On August 30, 2018, after serving their sentences and spending a further two months in federal immigration detention due to delays in their removal caused by the U.S. government, the United States removed the four men to Jamaica.
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