Thursday 3 December, 2020

Top Stories of 2019: Singh sparkles, with ups and downs otherwise

The year 2019 has come to a close and to simply say the year was one filled with its own turns of events would definitely be an understatement.

As is customary, the Loop news team looked at the developments that took the greatest spotlight over the year, including national significance.

The 10 stories outlined below are not presented in date order, but as all having had significant national impact, through the eyes of the news team, primarily when the developments were first highlighted.

Lynvale Bloomfield’s murder

 In February, the nation woke up to the shocking news that Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, Member of Parliament (MP) for East Portland, had been found stabbed to death at his home in Passley Gardens in the parish.

Bloomfield, a member of the opposition People's National Party (PNP), was a two-term MP, winning on his first attempt in the December 2011 General Elections and was re-elected in 2016.

In a statement released shortly after news of Bloomfield's death broke, Dr Peter Phillips, Opposition Leader and President of the PNP, said members of the party, along with the entire country, were "shocked, shaken and saddened by the news of the tragic death..."

The late Dr Lynvale Bloomfield

Phillips said Bloomfield had devoted years of his life to service to the Jamaican people as a medical practitioner and as an elected representative.

Reports were that Bloomfield’s household worker found his body with multiple stab wounds inside the politician’s house.

A reported associate of Bloomfield has since been charged with murder in relation to the fatal stabbing.

The accused killer, Simeon Sutherland, was in and out of jail during the investigation before being charged by the police, and has since been granted bail while awaiting trial.

Ruel Reid/Fritz Pinnock arrests

One of the biggest stories to capture the attention of Jamaicans in 2019 was the case involving former Education Minister, Ruel Reid.

On March 18, the Opposition People’s National Party raised questions about possible corruption, including nepotism, and the misuse of public funds at the Education Ministry and some of its affiliated agencies, including the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU).

Prime Minister Andrew Holness later met with Reid and demanded his resignation. Reid also resigned from the Senate.

A pre-dawn raid of Reid’s College Green home in St Andrew in October was one of three simultaneous operations out of which Reid, his wife Sharen and daughter Sharrelle, as well as the President of the CMU, Professor Fritz Pinnock, and Kim Brown-Lawrence, Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Councillor for the Brown’s Town Division of the St Ann Municipal Corporation, that collectively sent the nation into a political tailspin.

The operation that included Pinnock’s home in Hellshire, St Catherine, and Brown-Lawrence’s home in St Ann, followed a months-long  investigation by several state agencies, including the Financial Investigation Division (FID), the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) and the Constabulary Financial Unit (CFU) of the Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Division (C-TOC) into allegations of corruption and fraud.

The five individuals were slapped with multiple charges, including breaches of the Corruption Prevention Act, conspiracy to defraud, misconduct in a public office at common-law and beaches of the Proceeds of Crime Act in some cases.

Ruel Reid (partly hidden) and Professor Fritz Pinnock (third right) attend court in police custody on their first appearance.

The investigating agencies said the extent of the fraud involved in excess of $56 million, money allegedly siphoned from the Education Ministry and the CMU.

The five were brought before the court shortly after they were arrested, and were subsequently granted bail in various sums, and bound over to return to court on January 23.

Ann-Marie Vaz shocked the PNP in East Portland

In April, the JLP’s Ann-Marie Vaz won the Portland Eastern by-election, reversing an extended period of PNP dominance in the seat.

Vaz polls 9,917 votes to beat the PNP’s Damion Crawford with 9,611 votes.

There were 36,315 registered voters in the constituency, with Director of Elections Glasspole Brown, saying there was a 53 per cent voter turnout at the close of the polls.

Ann-Marie Vaz on the campaign trail.

The by-election was triggered by the brutal stabbing death of the former MP, Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, on February 2.

The PNP had held the Portland Eastern seat since February 9, 1989.

In the last general elections in 2016, that party had won the seat by more than 2,000 votes, receiving 8,606 votes to the JLP's 6,330, hence the shock at Vaz’ triumph.

The win also catapulted Vaz into the nation’s Parliament beside her husband, Daryl, who is the MP for the neighbouring West Portland constituency, marking the first time that a husband and wife team was representing an entire parish at the same time.

Big dengue fight all year

The country remained in the clutches of an unprecedented year-long dengue outbreak that sickened thousands and killed dozens.

Health Minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, came in for renewed criticism of his handling of the outbreak, in particular from the parliamentary Opposition.

He was also accused of hiding the actual number of persons who succumbed to the virus, but denied doing so.

When the minister announced in November that Cabinet had approved $1 billion in additional funding in the stepped-up fight against dengue, he said then that the mosquito-borne virus had sickened nearly 12,800 people, resulting in an estimated 61 deaths, 44 of which occurred in 2019.

Health and Wellness Minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, and Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie engaged in deep discussions at a press conference (file photo).

 Amid the ongoing challenges, it has been acknowledged that the country is experiencing a degue epidemic, with Tufton informing Parliament that despite the efforts of the Government, the reduction in the number of dengue cases has not been sustained sufficiently below the epidemic threshold.

Since January 2019, the Health Ministry said it has intensified its dengue prevention and control activities, with further intensification in July and again in September.

Response activities involved strengthening surveillance case management and vector control management through strengthening human resource capacity and supporting efforts to decrease the breeding of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito across the island.

Toni-Ann Singh conquers the world

In what must rank as one of the biggest stories of the year, the country erupted with collective joy in December when Bath, St Thomas native, 23-year-old Toni-Ann Singh, was regally crowned Miss World during the 69th staging of the prestigious event at the  ExCeL London convention centre in England.

A crowd favourite, Singh dominated the talent section of the competition earlier in the week, before going on to win the coveted title from a competitive field of 110 contestants.

On the decisive Saturday, December 14 crowning, Singh wowed the audience, viewers and judges alike with her powerful rendition of Whitney Houston’s big hit song, ‘I Have Nothing’. That performance all but sealed the deal for Singh who migrated to the United States at age nine.

Toni-Ann Singh's crowning moment of glory in London, England.

Days after being crowned Miss World, Singh created history by becoming the first Miss World to record a song, which she did when she voiced ‘I Have Nothing’ at the world-famous Abbey Road Studios in London, England. The proceeds from the song will go to the Miss World-affiliated Beauty with a Purpose charities that largely benefit disadvantaged children from around the world.

The aspiring medical doctor flew home to Jamaica six days after copping the crown, for a four-day whirlwind visit, and was the toast of an enamoured nation that showered her with nothing but love.

At the end of her short visit, Singh was named an ambassador by the Government, and presented with a diplomatic passport by Prime Minister Holness.

Miss World 2019, Toni-Ann Singh, back on 'The Rock' for a whale of a celebration, yard-style. 

Singh is the fourth Jamaican to win the Miss World title, after Carole Joan Crawford in 1963, Cindy Breakspeare in 1976, and Lisa Hanna in 1993.

Singh was also the first black woman to cop the Miss World title since Agbani Darego of Nigeria did topped the pageant in 2001.

Former Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, passed

Jamaica was plunged into mourning on Tuesday, May 28 when former firebrand Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, died on his 89th birthday in a Florida hospital where he was being treated for cancer.

"It is with great sadness that I inform the nation of the passing of the Most Honourable Edward Phillip George Seaga, the fifth Prime Minister of Jamaica," Andrew Holness, said in making the announcement.

Seaga, one of the most polarising figures in local political history, served as prime minister of Jamaica between 1980 and 1989. He famously led the JLP to a landslide victory over Michael Manley’s PNP in the hotly contested October 1980 General Elections on a ‘Deliverance’ agenda.

The late Edward Seaga on his feet in Parliament during his time as Prime Minister in the 1980s. Also pictured (l-r) are the late Dr Percival Broderick and Hugh Shearer, the latter of whom had previously as Prime Minister of Jamaica. 

The JLP comfortably remained in office for nine years, as the PNP boycotted snap elections that were called in 1983.

Seaga was the last surviving member of the framers of the Jamaican Constitution. He served as JLP leader for 31 years, and as MP for West Kingston for 43 years, from 1962 until his retirement in 2005, the longest ever by a Jamaican politician.

His retirement from active politics in 2005 marked the end of an era, as he was the last of Jamaica’s serving politicians to have entered public life before independence in 1962, as he was appointed to the Legislative Council (now the Senate) in 1959.

Seaga is credited with building much of the financial and planning infrastructure of the country after independence, as well as similarly influencing its art and craft spheres, along with awareness of the national heritage.

On his retirement from active politics, he was appointed honorary distinguished fellow at the professorial level at the University of the West Indies (UWI). At the time of his death he was Chancellor of the University of Technology (UTech), Jamaica.

He was also President of Tivoli Gardens Football Club and Chairman of the Premier League Clubs’ Association (PLCA).

The coffin bearing the remains of former Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, being interred at National Heroes Parkin Kingston.

Four days of mourning were observed for Seaga in June, and following tributes, including in Parliament and in his beloved Tivoli Gardens, Seaga was interred inside National Heroes Park on June 23, following a funeral service inside the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Vaz and Paulwell’s US visas revoked

Like her husband, Daryl, the MP for East Portland, Ann-Marie Vaz, had her United States' diplomatic visa cancelled by the US Embassy.

That news emerged in December, a month after Daryl’s were reported to have been revoked.

Daryl and Ann-Marie Vaz during a sitting of Parliament.

Apart from her diplomatic visa being revoked, Mrs Vaz also had an application for a visitor’s visa denied by the US Embassy.

In November, Daryl Vaz, the Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, confirmed that his US diplomatic visa had been revoked. He was advised by the embassy that subsequent to the issuance of the visa, it had received information that he may be ineligible.

Phillip Paulwell

It also emerged at the same time that the US visa of the Opposition Spokesman on Energy, Phillip Paulwell, had also been revoked, with unconfirmed reports of similar actions having been taken against a limited number of police officers.

NIDS Act ruled as unconstitutional and null and void

Unconstitutional and null and void.

That was the ruling of the Constitutional Court on April 12, as it struck down the National Identification and Registration (NIDS) Act.

The court, in its landmark decision, agreed with the Opposition PNP that certain aspects of the controversial legislation breached the rights of Jamaicans to privacy, as is guaranteed by the Constitution.

The ruling was handed down by the Full Court comprising Chief Justice Bryan Sykes, Justice Lisa Palmer-Hamilton and Justice David Batts, and was historic for another reason – the decision was live streamed.

The court was unanimous in its decision, and the chief justice argued that having struck down certain aspects of the Act relating to privacy issues, such as the collection of biometric data, the remaining portion of the legislation could not stand. Sykes noted that the remaining portions would not accurately reflect the will or intent of the legislature.

Jamaicans would have been required to give their fingerprints, state their blood type, and even subject themselves to iris scans if the law had taken effect.

The chief justice argued that the collection of biometric information violated informational privacy, since such information can reveal a number of things about individuals. Sykes said iris scans, for example, can reveal a person’s health status, including their particular ailment and the type(s) of medication being taken. He argued that individuals may be minded to keep such information private.

Chief Justice Bryan Sykes

The decision dealt a major blow to the Andrew Holness-led Administration that had argued that the NIDS would, among other things, improve the country’s national security, while making it easier for persons to conduct business.

The case was brought by Julian Robinson, the PNP General Secretary, on behalf of himself, his constituents and the party. Robinson had argued that sections of the NIDS would abrogate, abridge and infringe particular rights outlined in the Constitution of Jamaica. The attorney general was the defendant in the matter.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Holness told Parliament in November that the Government was pushing to table a new NIDS Bill by March 31, the end of the 2019-2020 financial year. That date will be just shy of a year since the NIDS was struck down by the Constitutional Court.

Tesha Miller convicted on ex-gangster’s testimony

Tesha Miller, the reputed leader of the feared Spanish Town-based Clansman gang, was convicted in the Home Circuit Court in downtown Kingston in connection with the murder of Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) Chairman, Douglas Chambers, in 2008.

Miller is now facing years behind bars.

A seven-member jury comprised of one man and six women returned the verdict after deliberating for roughly three hours.

Presiding Judge, Justice Georgiana Fraser, handed the case to the jurors after two days of summation and after she had earlier ruled that Miller had a case to answer.

Miller’s conviction came after a previous trial that resulted in the 2016 acquittal of Andre ‘Blackman’ Bryan, who has since the killing, emerged as a reputed leader of a breakaway faction of the gang which the police claim has been responsible for scores of murders.

Specifically, Miller was convicted of being an accessory before and after the fact of murder.

Tesha Miller

Detailed and sometimes eye-popping evidence before the court from the main prosecution witness, a former and now incarcerated member of the gang, included testimony that Miller did not carry out the actual killing, but gave the order to do so.

The witness, who remained nameless during the trial at the court’s direction,   testified that he was present at a meeting when Miller gave the order for Chambers to be killed.

The 29-year-old witness who had entered a plea deal which saw him saw him getting reduced jail time for a murder sentence he is presently serving, told the court that he had been affiliated with the gang from the time he was just 13-year-old.

He testified that he decided to co-operate with the prosecution because he had lost 13 members of his family at the hands of the gang, and felt it was time to put an end to the killings.

The witness told the court that Bryan was one of two triggermen who carried out Miller’s order to kill Chambers. The other, a man he named as ‘Brucky’, has since died.

According to the witness, Bryan, who was reportedly wearing a hooded shirt on June 27, 2008, approached and shot Chambers, who fell to the ground. He said Brucky continued shooting Chambers while he was on the ground. They then reportedly fled the scene in a getaway car while the witness and other men, on orders from Miller, created a diversion by also firing shots in the area.

The witness also said he gave two guns to Bryan on the day of the shooting.

He told the court that Miller arranged for Bryan to be sent to the Cayman Islands by boat after Chambers was killed.

The late Douglas Chambers 

In 2010, Bryan was arrested and charged with Chambers’ murder after he was pointed out on an identification parade. He was acquitted of the killing some six years later, but is presently before the courts on other criminal charges.

The witness also detailed the four-tiered structure of the gang, which he insisted Miller headed. The structure involved foot soldiers and area leaders. He said gang members collected extortion money from businesses and operators of public passenger vehicles in the Spanish Town area.

He said to disobey an order from Miller would be putting one’s life on the line.

The witness also testified to personally “killing nuff people”.

Miller, in an unsworn statement in court, denied ordering the hit on Chambers. He also denied arranging for Bryan to leave Jamaica by boat, and similarly denied knowing the main prosecution witness.

Sunday morning terror in May Pen, Clarendon

Two police officers were shot and injured in their attempted to thwart a daring, daylight robbery that was being committed by heavily armed gunmen at a Chinese-owned supermarket in May Pen, Clarendon on a Sunday morning in May.

The Corporate Communications Unit (CCU), the information arm of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), reported then that "Two policemen were shot this morning. It's an ongoing situation at this time, as police personnel still are on the scene."

A video of the chilling event in which multiple rifle-toting and partially masked men forced their way out of the supermarket with Chinese hostages in defiance of police presence outside the location, that went viral on social media, sent shivers into the hearts of many Jamaicans, especially residents of the Clarendon capital.

Reports are that about 9.15 am, two motorcars with several men with high-powered weapons, descended on the Guinep Tree area of the town and were engaged in a robbery there, during which a limited number of police personnel arrived, and were greeted with heavy gunfire.

A constable reportedly sustained gunshot wounds to the face and right shoulder, and a sergeant, who had been on foot patrol and challenged the men, was shot twice in the abdomen/buttocks and the groin.

A screen grab from a video of a chilling robbery, shooting and hostage-taking incident at a business establishment at Guinep Tree in May Pen, Clarendon back in May of this year. 

The gunmen reportedly shot up a police service vehicle that was on the scene, as well as a privately-owned Toyota Mark X motorcar that was being driven by another police officer who also came on the scene, with bullets, during which the third officer also challenged the rampant gunmen.

One of the getaway vehicles, a white Toyota Probox motorcar, later crashed along nearby Howard Avenue in the town, and was abandoned by the gunmen who successfully made their escape with the vast majority of millions of dollars that were reportedly taken in the robbery.

Both injured policemen were treated for their injuries at hospital.

The very high-profile robbery drew the attention of the Cabinet at its weekly meeting the next day, with the police commissioner being summoned to give a report on the matter.

Three suspects were later taken into custody in relation to the robbery, but were later released because of lack of evidence to prosecute them.

Also notable among last year’s prominent stories was the conclusion of an extended fund facility with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which signaled a new dawn in Jamaica’s fiscal position and management; the very surprising World Championship long jump gold medal from Tajay Gayle; and the temporary firestorm that surrounded news that, well over a year after, the Bustamante Hospital for Children is yet to receive the pledged $100 million in support from the proceeds of the 2018 staging of the Shaggy and Friends charity concert that was held in January of that year. That matter has since been clarified and set in motion for a full resolution.

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