2001 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 2

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Jamaica received a downward trend arrow due to the government's continued inability to effectively confront high levels of violence and insecurity.


Prime Minister Percival J. Patterson promised in 2000 to staunch Jamaica's "rampant criminality" by introducing new efforts to control guns, creating a new police anti-organized-crime strike force, and reintroducing the death penalty. The get-tough promises came after key leaders of the vital tourism industry joined a crescendo of complaints from Jamaicans of all walks of life to put an end to a more than two-decades-long spiral of mostly drug related street crime. The fierce crime wave has crippled local businesses and created an exodus of middle-class Jamaicans overseas. The decision on the death penalty was immediately condemned by international human rights organizations, and Jamaican lawmakers lashed out at what it called U.S. reluctance to provide real help in stemming the flow of illegal guns to the island and its Caribbean neighbors.

Jamaica, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence from Great Britain in 1962. It is a parliamentary democracy, with the British monarchy represented by a governor-general. The bicameral parliament consists of a 60-member house of representatives elected for five years and a 21-member senate, with 13 senators appointed by the prime minister and 8 by the leader of the parliamentary opposition. Executive authority is vested in the prime minister, who leads the political party commanding a majority in the house.

Since independence, power has alternated between the social-democratic People's National Party (PNP) and the conservative Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). The PNP's Michael Manley, who died in 1997, was prime minister from 1972 to 1980, and again from 1989 until his resignation for health reasons in 1992. JLP leader Edward Seaga held the post from 1980 until 1989. During the 1970s the two parties helped organize and arm slum dwellers, creating rival armed gangs to intimidate voters.

In 1992 the PNP elected Patterson to replace Manley as party leader and prime minister. In the 1993 elections, the PNP won 52 parliamentary seats, and the JLP 8. The parties differed little on continuing the structural adjustment begun in the 1980s, but the JLP was hurt by long-standing internal rifts. Irregularities and violence marred the vote. The PNP agreed to address subsequent JLP demands for electoral reform. Meanwhile, the Patterson government continued to confront labor unrest and an unrelenting crime wave.

In October 1995 Bruce Golding, a well-respected economist and businessman and the former chairman of the JLP, left the party to launch the National Democratic Movement (NDM), one of the most significant political developments since independence. Golding brought with him a number of key JLP figures, including one other member of parliament, cutting the JLP's seats to six.

Politically motivated fighting between supporters of the JLP and the NDM claimed at least ten lives during 1996. In December 1997, the PNP won a third successive victory in parliamentary elections, taking 50 seats in the lower house to the JLP's 10. Confidence in Patterson's unprecedented second full term was reaffirmed in local elections held in September 1998, as the ruling PNP gained 75 percent of the vote and took possession of the capital and all 13 rural parishes. The 1997 vote and that in 1998 were characterized by unusually low levels of political violence and were judged generally free and fair, despite a creaky electoral administration.

In April 1999, sweeping tax changes proposed by Patterson sparked a riot that left nine people dead, most killed by the police. In July, Vivian Blake, the alleged leader of a gang known as the Shower Posse was extradited to the United States, to face charges in a Miami court for participation in hundreds of murders, mostly drug-related, in the United States in the 1980s.

The Private Sector Organization of Jamaica, made up of manufacturers, distributors, and exporters, has said that the island's four-year economic decline, marked by a 20 percent unemployment rate, is the result of three decades of crime. The increase in violent crime is largely the work of former politically organized gangs that now operate a lucrative drug trade that is only loosely tied to local party bosses. By early 2000 it became clear that Colombian drug traffickers had wrested away from Jamaican middlemen the direct control of local distribution of cocaine and its export to the United States. The Colombian takeover was the latest development in a three-year boom in hard drug traffic that came in the wake of a crackdown on the drug trade in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico's Pacific coast. In September Seaga accused the government of running extortion rackets and the PNP of arming "activists" – gangsters – with licensed guns, charges denied by the government. In October Patterson dismissed the head of the police Civilian Intelligence Unit, after the elite group was accused of engaging in illegal wiretapping of leading politicians, including the prime minister and senior police officials.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens are able to change their government through elections. However, voter apathy in the 1998 local elections resulted in one of the lowest turnout rates – 31 percent – in Jamaican history. Although the violence associated with the 1997 preelectoral period was significantly less than in previous years, it was nonetheless marked by thuggery on both sides, police intimidation, and large-scale confusion. Progress on electoral reform has been slow, and the municipal elections had been postponed for five years in order for electoral rolls to be updated and the voting system reformed. International concern has been expressed about candidate access to so-called garrison communities – armed political fiefdoms in 9 of the 60 parliamentary districts. Seaga's JLP controls only one, Tivoli Gardens, while the PNP controls seven and the NDM one.

Constitutional guarantees regarding the right to free expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions are generally respected.

The judicial system is headed by a supreme court and includes several magistrate courts and a court of appeals, with final recourse to the Privy Council in London, which is drawn from members of Britain's House of Lords. The justice system is slow and inefficient, particularly in addressing police abuses and the violent conditions in prisons. Despite government efforts to improve penal conditions, a mounting backlog of cases and a shortage of court staff at all levels continue to undermine the judicial system. In February 1997 Jamaica signed on to the hemispheric antidrug strategy formulated by the Organization of American States (OAS). A September 2000 ruling by the Privy Council that may save hundreds of convicted murderers on death row on Carribean islands prompted Patterson, a proponent of executions, to declare that it was "another compelling reason" to create a much-touted Caribbean court to replace the Privy Council.

Violence is now the major cause of death in Jamaica, and the murder rate is one of the highest in the world. Much of the violence is the result of warfare between drug gangs known as posses. Criminal deportees from the United States and a growing illegal weapons trade are major causes of the violence. Mobs have been responsible for numerous vigilante killings of suspected criminals. Inmates frequently die as a result of prison riots. Jamaican officials complain that the United States was flagrantly applying a double standard by demanding a full effort by them to help stop the flow of drugs into the United States, but at the same time failing to stem the flow of drugs to Jamaica.

Human rights groups say that there are continuing concerns over criminal justice practices in Jamaica. These include the imposition of death sentences following trials of questionable fairness; killings by police in disputed circumstances and deaths in custody; corporal punishment, alleged ill-treatment by police and prison wardens; appalling detention centers and prisons; and laws punishing consensual sexual acts in private between adult men. The June 2000 ruling by the Privy Council in London, which commuted the death penalty for six Jamaican inmates, said that inmates should be allowed lawyers when appealing before Jamaica's privy council, which advises on mercy pleas. It objected to a Jamaican law that gives death-row inmates only six months to have their cases heard by international human rights commissions. It also reaffirmed an earlier ruling that mandated, because of concerns about cruel and inhumane punishment, a lapse of no more than five years between sentencing and execution.

A mounting crime rate led the government to take the controversial steps of restoring capital punishment and restoring flogging. Rights groups protested both measures. Critics charge that flogging is unconstitutional because it can be characterized as "inhuman or degrading punishment," which the constitution prohibits. In 1998, a six-month limit on death-row appeals to international bodies was adopted. Jamaica has also announced its intention to withdraw from an agreement with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the OAS that gives prisoners the right to appeal to the commission in order to remove barriers to executions. There are 600 prisoners on death row.

There are an estimated 1.9 million radios in Jamaica – the highest ratio in the Caribbean – but only 330,000 television sets, and there is generally low newspaper readership. Newspapers are independent and free of government control. Journalists are occasionally intimidated during election campaigns. Broadcast media are largely public but are open to pluralistic points of view. Public opinion polls play a key role in the political process, and election campaigns feature debates on state-run television.

In 1998, a woman was for the first time elected as speaker of parliament. Labor unions are politically influential and have the right to strike. The Industrial Disputes Tribunal mediates labor conflicts.

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