NASSAU – The shooting of a Haitian man by an immigration officer has led to calls from local and international human rights groups for a full and transparent investigation.
The man was airlifted to Nassau after he was shot in the face during an immigration round up in Palmetto Point, Eleuthera, sometime after 2 p.m. on Tuesday. The immigrant has been identified by Eleuthera residents as 27-year-old Jean-Mary Justilien.
He was listed in serious condition at Princess Margaret Hospital, according to police, who said yesterday that Justilien was shot in the cheek when he attempted to disarm an immigration officer.
However, The Tribune was told that several eyewitnesses claimed that the man had attempted to run away from the official and did not struggle for his weapon.
The police statement read: “According to reports, late yesterday [Tuesday] afternoon a joint team consisting of police and immigration officers were conducting an operation in Palmetto Point, when an undocumented Haitian man who attempted to disarm an immigration officer was shot in the cheek.”
“Investigations are ongoing,” it added.
Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell declined to comment on the incident yesterday but said that his department was also investigating the matter.
The shooting follows weeks of apprehension exercises on the island, according to Solivia Fox, president of the Central Eleuthera Haitian Bahamian Association (CEHBVA), who pointed to the recent spate of illegal landings.
She acknowledged that illegal migrants may be facilitated by persons in the community, adding that this activity was counter-productive.
“I think there is some assistance,” Fox said, “the ships that are coming in, when they get here whoever is on that ship, when the officers get there the people are gone. So there is something going on.
“Right now we [CEHBVA] encourage all of them if they are illegal, the best thing is to leave. We discuss this every Sunday with them to do it the right way, to apply for everything in Haiti.”
She further explained that the high cost and excessive delays to obtain proper documentation discourage many Haitians from seeking legal entry to the country.
Ms Fox said that while the island’s community was divided on the immigration issue, many disagree with the outcome of the incident on Tuesday.
Giving an account she received from eyewitnesses, Ms Fox said immigration officers were rounding up illegal immigrants on Tuesday and arrested Justilien after approaching a house in Palmetto Point. Mr Justilien tried to break free from the arresting officer and the pair fell to the ground, according to Fox, who said that the migrant then got up and ran away from the officer.
“There was a story going around that he was fighting him [the immigration officer] for his gun,” Fox said. “That is not true, we have witnesses that were there. He pulled away and they fell to the ground.”
She said: “He was shot, but still managed to escape. He was picked up by other family members on the road and that’s when he was apprehended.
“But they refused to let any family members see him as he got medical attention, and no one was able to go with him when he went to Nassau.”
“At first, the immigration officer kept saying he [Justilien] might have gotten struck with a stick, and that it was not his gun, but at the scene they heard the gunshot.”
Tensions between law enforcement and migrant communities in the Bahamas have increased due to the enforcement of a stricter immigration policy on November 1, 2014.
Last week, Mr Mitchell said 2,057 migrants have been repatriated in the months following the policy’s implementation up to April 2015. Of the figure, 79 per cent were Haitian.
“I have no problem with them rounding them off, but I think it must be the right procedures,” Fox said.
In an interview with The Tribune yesterday, managing attorney at the Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice Wade McMullen said the incident was worrisome.
“At this point it’s too early to tell what happened with the shooting, but . . .we urge officials to immediately and fully investigate in a transparent way,” he said.
Human rights lawyer Fred Smith, QC, urged officials to soften their tone and approach to illegal immigration, insisting that it was unnecessary for immigration officers to conduct “militaristic” armed raids with police and defence force officers.