KINGSTON, Jamaica, Tuesday June 18, 2019 – The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade says it is investigating the matter in which four Jamaican fishermen have brought a case against the United States Coast Guard for alleged mistreatment, following their arrest and detention in 2017 in Haitian waters.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP last week filed a lawsuit against the US Coast Guard, seeking damages on behalf of the fishermen – Robert Dexter Weir, Patrick Wayne Ferguson, Luther Fian Patterson, and David Roderick Williams – who were secretly detained without due process at sea in inhumane conditions on four Coast Guard ships for over a month.
The lawyers said the men were held under the Coast Guard’s unlawful detention and mistreatment policy that ramped up in 2012 as part of the United States’ “war on drugs”. Under this policy, the Coast Guard stops boats in international waters, searches them and their crew for drugs, destroys boats, and detains crewmembers for prolonged periods of time in inhumane conditions, regardless of whether any drugs are found aboard.
According to the ACLU, the fishermen set out on September 13, 2017 for a fishing trip to Morant Cays, expecting to be gone just one day. But the US Coast Guard stopped their boat and arrested them before riddling the vessel with bullets and setting it on fire. The organization said the Coast Guard held the men in secret for more than a month, chaining them to the exposed decks of four different Coast Guard ships, while denying them access to shelter, basic sanitation, proper food, and medical care.
Jamaica’s Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Senator Kamina Johnson Smith said her ministry became aware of the matter last Thursday, through media reports, and also saw the video in which the fishermen cite experiences of shocking treatment during their extended period of detention, that would amount to human rights abuse.
“We are investigating the situation with our consulate in Miami and other relevant Government agencies as we seek to learn more about the case, but to date have not discovered any record of a complaint having been reported to the Consulate or headquarters in Kingston,” she said.
Johnson Smith stressed that the allegations are of serious concern to the Ministry, as the rights of Jamaicans at home and aboard are always of paramount importance to the Government of Jamaica.
She expressed the hope that justice would be delivered in the matter now before the US court.
According to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU, for most of the fishermen’s detention, the Coast Guard kept them outdoors on the decks of the ships and exposed to the elements, even as one of the ships sailed into a hurricane. The men’s skin burned and blistered in the sun and they were drenched and chilled by rain and sea water. Throughout the ordeal, the Coast Guard denied the men a phone call, refusing their repeated pleas to contact their families in Jamaica to let them know they were alive or even to contact their families on their behalf. On each of the four ships, Coast Guard officers told the men that it was against policy to allow them to make such a call.
After making stops in Guantanamo Bay, St Thomas, and Puerto Rico, the Coast Guard delivered the men to the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami, Florida, in October 2017. The men were initially charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana. They pleaded not guilty and were detained pending trial.
When the men were finally permitted to call their families and loved ones back home — the first time in over a month – they learned that they had been presumed them dead after they failed to return home from their fishing trip.
The US ultimately charged the men with providing “false information” to the Coast Guard about the boat’s destination. They claimed their destination was the waters near the coast of Jamaica when they were actually destined for Haiti. However, the ACLU said the men had not lied to the Coast Guard officers but pleaded guilty because they were told that it was the quickest and surest way to get back to their homes and families in Jamaica and to put an end to their nightmare.
A federal court sentenced them each to 10 months’ imprisonment, and after serving their sentences and spending a further two months in federal immigration detention due to delays caused by the US government, the US deported the men to Jamaica in August 2018, nearly a year after they had left Jamaica.
The ACLU said that as a result of the Coast Guard’s secret detention and inhumane treatment of the four men, they have suffered and continue to suffer physical and psychological trauma. They also returned to their families financially ruined.
“The men would like to return to fishing as they once did, but fear that if they do so, they will again be subjected to the Coast Guard’s unlawful detention, property-destruction, and mistreatment policy. That policy and its enforcement [are] well-documented, and without changes to it, these fishermen and others like them continue to be at risk of being subjected to it,” the ACLU stated.
This lawsuit seeks to recover damages for the physical, psychological, and emotional trauma resulting from the men’s over-month-long inhumane treatment and secret detention by the Coast Guard and for the Coast Guard’s destruction of their fishing boat and other property. It also seeks declaratory and injunctive relief against the Coast Guard, “so that the men can once again freely ply their trade as fishermen in international waters near Jamaica without exposure to the Coast Guard’s unlawful policy and practice”.