The intention of police commissioner Vernon Francois at a recently held general meeting may have well been to discuss pressing matters, address concerns and at the same time motivate members of the Royal St Lucian Police Force, but days after the meeting, human rights activist Mary Francis has found issue with some of the remarks made by the commissioner that have since been aired on local news broadcasts.
At the occasion Francois’ words to the officers were that they should not be afraid of “the Mary Francis’ of this world.” He reassured them that as long as they did their jobs within the law, he would stand with them. The commissioner accused Francis of bullying the police, telling officers there was “no need to worry about her” because the majority of St Lucians supported the police. The commissioner’s remarks were met with rousing applause from members of the police force.
“He kept saying don’t worry about her, we won’t lie down and let Mary Francis roll over the police, don’t mind her. I find it scandalous,” Francis said speaking to the STAR this week. I find his approach at the general meeting reprehensible and uncalled for. I think it was an attempt to malign me and intimidate me for persistently calling for Inquests in the 12 police killings. I have never once referred to the commissioner in his personal capacity, I always speak to the office of the commissioner.”
“Maybe the morale of police is low and it was an attempt to boost their morale,” she commented. “Especially in light of the recent US State Department’s Human Rights Report, but its not what you do but how you do it. To actually launch an attack on me as a top security officer of the state I think was very unbecoming of the police commissioner.”
Francis said she has every intention of seeking an international appeal for her protection.
“I think it was well intended to catch the attention of the public,” she continued. “He kept referring to the majority of persons being supportive of the police. I am saying this has an element of mob rule in it when you speak about the majority of persons being supportive of police actions. The majority may not always be right in St Lucia where a lot of persons are ignorant of the judicial process.”
Like a lone voice in the wilderness Mary Francis is often unaccompanied in her role as defender of human rights. This week she told the STAR she’d made up her mind at first not to pay attention to the statements made by the island’s police commissioner, then thought better of it.
“I will be trying to draw the attention of the ministry and other individuals to that type of behaviour, which is unacceptable in a democratic country,” she expressed. “I would hope the authorities, the minister of home affairs and so forth, would actually understand my expression of concern, my opposition to the commissioner’s statements because since he’s a public officer, it might be a reflection of the thinking of the government if he isn’t sanctioned or corrected.”
The human rights advocate feels the whole issue of ‘extra judicial killings’ is being misconstrued.
“I have termed it extra judicial because in international human rights law extra judicial would mean state killings which are done outside of the court process; not sanctioned by a court,” she explained. “A whole year and those 12 killings from 2011 still have not been subject to the judicial process, nor a court, neither a Coroner’s Inquest, which is the special body established by law to determine whether there was justification.”
“So until such time that the judicial system can determine justification for those killings it’s extrajudicial,” she stated. “It’s a simple thing and for the commissioner to take it out of context and try to bring in other countries where there are extreme state sanctioned killings, he’s just trying to show there is a bit of malice in the whole thing or a total misunderstanding of the political system under which we operate in St Lucia.”
Francis recognized public servants were an extension of the executive branch of government and the police as agents of the state acted on behalf of the executive.
“You cannot tell me you have those killings and it almost becomes a case of judge, jury and executioner,” she said. “There is need to account in the proper forum, which is the judicial process and I do not know why it is so difficult. Anyone who understands our political system would appreciate the point I’m trying to raise. I don’t know how the police can better their performance and comply with the rule of law if that is the attitude of the commissioner.”
I have been on this mission for a while now,” Francis conceded. “I have been discriminated against by police officers in trying to get information for clients and so forth. It’s not only now the police are incensed against me. In view of this hostility, this just serves the purpose of heightening the hostility toward me.”
The human rights activist made mention of section II of the Constitution on Fundamental Rights.
“No one shall be deprived of his or her life, except by execution of an order of a court,” Francis read. “It lays down exceptions including self-defense, defense of your property and police officers arresting someone in the commission of a crime and so forth. If they are saying because we are police officers we have the right to shoot because he is a violent man, where is the proof?”
“At least one of those boys, Allan Louisy never had a conviction,” she said speaking of the incident in Vieux Fort in May, 2011 when five individuals were shot and killed by police. “He never went to court for any criminal offense, let us know on what basis you’re chasing those men. Whether you had information, you were suspicious they’d committed a crime and so forth. That’s where the element of justification will come into play. They shouldn’t get annoyed;
their duty is to arrest, take before a court and let the court deal with the offenders, not to go out on a killing spree.”
“There was the so-called police ‘hit list’ and a number of persons on that list actually lost their lives,” Francis continued. “This is an opportunity for them to realize there are laws governing police activities, whenever they fall short of the law they must expect
persons who are human rights activists like myself to recognize oversights of the justice system of the state, because that is our duty.”
Francis feels some of the advocacy work has paid off. She received word this week that the relevant files associated with the Vieux Fort incident are with the southern district court. Inquest dates still have not been announced.
“Why do you think they are taking so long?” Francis questioned. “A whole year. Were they expecting it to be brushed under the carpet? The Coroner’s Act stipulates that almost immediately when you have an unnatural death, especially in police custody you have to take the necessary steps to ensure an Inquest is held.”
In the well-publicized Human Rights Report the U.S. gave the new government credit for taking steps to expedite investigative processes and review cases.
“I was very happy with the manner in which Prime Minister Kenny Anthony spoke when the Human Rights Report was released,” Francis said. “He said he was distressed by the report because it brought disrepute to our image. He said the killings didn’t happen under his administration but noted when those things happened the international community was always looking on. I was heartened by his reaction to the whole thing, as compared to the last administration. They did nothing. The former prime minister, which was so unacceptable, referred to the killings as “collateral damage”. Imagine people losing their lives at the hands of the state, “collateral damage.” Instead of saying it was unfortunate they lost their lives under those circumstances and there would be an investigation. We know the risk involved with heightened crime for the party in government and because of that consideration they turned a blind eye to the whole question of the right to life, human rights of people and St Lucia’s human rights record. They didn’t mind sacrificing St Lucia’s human rights record on the alter of curbing crime, under ‘Operation Restore Confidence’ last year.
Francis feels there is need for a full inquiry of police operations in 2011.
“There are so many things just left out there and we don’t know exactly what took place,” she said. “That would be necessary as part of setting the record straight. You cannot have elements who are subverting the law within the police force because it weakens the whole element of state security. I think the powers that be must take these things more seriously.”
She also felt there was need for a Special Coroner to be appointed to deal with the five Vieux Fort killings in particular.
“To have a continuous inquiry over a period of time until they come to the end of the Inquiry, I think the Coroner should be specially appointed,” she said. “I want to call for a special appointment. In some countries a retired judge or some other eminent
legal person would be appointed to sit and take in all the evidence, hear the facts and
I think we should do that in order to quicken the process and avoid adjournments.”
If Mary Francis wasn’t one of the most persistent advocates for this particular issue, would it be safe to say the case would be forgotten? If not her, who would be the
one leading the charge and risking everything to ensure justice, is served?
“Whenever you have those incidents over the media the following day or days after people will get incensed against me. Some even come out and make threats,” the vocal Francis revealed. “I was walking through town on the very Saturday and this man was so angry and he just came right into my face and began his verbal attacks. I quickly had to get out of his way to avoid him actually assaulting me. I had two such incidents last week, on Friday and Saturday. I attribute that to the recent behaviour of the commissioner. It’s
actually an invitation to get people against me. It encourages people who were already hostile toward human rights activists to increase that hostility. Members of the
community will alienate us. Instead of pushing the education of human rights, this is actually giving a blow to the whole thing.”