Prime Minister Andrew Holness last night insisted that the Government acted appropriately in the case of 43 Jamaicans aboard Marella Discovery 2 who did not make it into the country, despite being in Jamaican waters just under two weeks ago.
Holness explained at this week’s first COVID-19 update press briefing that he and a subcommittee of the Cabinet had agreed to have the Jamaicans landed, but the ship had set sail before the approval could have been conveyed to the captain.
Giving a timeline of the incident that has sparked controversy and criticism from the parliamentary Opposition and constitutional attorney Dr Lloyd Barnett, the prime minister said he and the national security minister became aware of the request on April 3, a day after it had been made.
“When that request came to us on Friday at a subcommittee [meeting] of the Cabinet, immediately as it came to my attention we said yes, we would have to take them because it is the logical thing to do, they were close by. But by the time the minister of national security could have conveyed the approval the ship had already left our waters. So I know a lot of people want to make much of it, but the truth is, once the protocols are in place we expect that the persons who are obliged to follow the protocols must follow the protocols, and it is just quite an unfortunate situation that the ship left before the conveyance of the approval,” Holness said.
Hours earlier Barnett, who heads the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights, told the Jamaica Observer that the Government had violated the rights of the Jamaican crew members.
“The fact is, they knew that Jamaicans were trying to get home and they stopped them. So whether they had already entered Jamaican waters or were trying to enter Jamaican waters, the fact is that they stopped Jamaicans from entering Jamaica,” Barnett argued.
“There are clearly constitutional implications if you stop a Jamaican from coming home. You have interfered with their right to re-enter their native land, and that is a breach of their constitutional right,” Barnett added.
His comments reflect the provisions set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms outlined in Chapter III of the Jamaican Constitution, which speaks to the right of “every citizen of Jamaica to enter Jamaica”.
The enjoyment of these rights and freedoms, however, is “subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest”.
In the case of public interest, individual rights may also be suspended in a manner prescribed by the constitution; for example, in the event of war, calamity, or threat of subversion.
Jamaica’s air and sea ports have been closed to incoming passenger traffic since March 24. The move, Holness said, was designed to contain the spread of COVID-19 locally.
In a joint statement from the national security and foreign affairs ministries on Monday, the Government said the risk of allowing the Jamaicans into the country was high at the time the request was made, and posed a further threat to public health and safety.
But Barnett dismissed the statement, arguing that the Government had no evidence that the Jamaicans aboard the cruise ship had contracted the infectious virus.
“There’s no evidence, as far as I know, that any of the persons prevented from entering or landing were suffering from the epidemic. And if they were suffering from the epidemic, the procedure is to quarantine them and put them in isolation,” he reasoned. “The people said that they were willing to go into self-isolation at the minimum, and to be quarantined at the maximum. Those are the alternatives which were available if there was a basis for suspecting that they were in any way infected. I have not seen anything to suggest that anybody on the ship or any of these particular Jamaicans were infected or showing any signs or symptoms of being infected.”
On April 6 the Observer first reported that the Jamaican crew members aboard the ship were reportedly moved to tears after the request for permission for them to disembark went unanswered by the Jamaican Government.
The vessel, which stopped to refuel 12 miles south of Port Royal, arrived on April 2 and departed on April 3 for the Dominican Republic, whose Government allowed its citizens to disembark despite its closed borders.
The ship then set sail for Portugal, where a request to dock was reportedly denied. At press time yesterday Marella Discovery 2 was headed to the UK.
Yesterday, Holness said it was “quite unfortunate” that the Jamaicans were not accepted into the country, but the circumstances needed to be clear.“In general, I want to say about this matter that the Government of Jamaica always acts in the best interest of the people of Jamaica. We will put in place protocols that are transparent, protocols that everyone can have confidence in… I believe we acted appropriately. We sympathise with those who are on-board the ship who would want to come back home, and we sympathise with all Jamaicans who are overseas yearning to come back home, but we have to do it in a way that does not imperil those that are here,” the prime minister said.
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