Jamaica's top justice official testified under oath Tuesday that she was kept out of the loop about the hiring of a U.S. law firm to lobby Washington to contest an extradition request for alleged drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke.
As an opposition lawyer heckled and prodded her, Justice Minister and Attorney General Dorothy Lightbourne insisted she was unaware that Los Angeles-based firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips had been authorized to fight the extradition of the alleged crime boss, who had ties to the governing Jamaica Labor Party.
After the government backed down on opposing his extradition, a chaotic hunt for Coke in his gritty West Kingston stronghold led to four days of fighting last May that killed 73 civilians and three security officers. It was one of the bloodiest episodes in Jamaica's recent history.
Coke finally was captured June 22 and quickly sent to New York, where he has pleaded not guilty to charges that he trafficked drugs to the U.S. and funneled profits and guns back to Jamaica.
"Seventy-three people died, over a billion dollars to rehabilitate police stations burned down, policemen murdered, soldiers murdered, citizens traumatized," K.D. Knight, a lawyer for the opposition People's National Party, said, ticking off the repercussions of the slum standoff. "With all that was happening, they kept you in the dark."
"Yes, I was kept in the dark," Lightbourne said after hours of withering questioning by Knight during her third day in front of a three-member commission of inquiry.
The hiring of the U.S. lobbyists has been a central scandal in the Coke saga.
Prime Minister Bruce Golding has said he regrets bringing in the lobbying firm, but insists he acted only in his capacity as chief of the Jamaica Labor Party, not as prime minister.
A prominent lawyer who played an influential role in the governing party has disputed Golding's claim, and the law firm insists it was employed by Jamaica's government, through an intermediary.
Lightbourne opposed Coke's extradition for months on legal grounds. But in earlier testimony before the panel, she said her growing concern over a breakdown in public order prompted her to finally sign the U.S. extradition request for Coke, despite her concerns that some evidence was flawed, especially wiretapped communications.
"It was almost coming to social disorder, so I had to review my position," she said.
Lightbourne also said Jamaican authorities felt they were being bullied by Washington, insisting that U.S. officials displayed a "refusal to listen to the legal arguments" for not extraditing the alleged second-generation boss of the notorious Shower Posse gang.
"What I was trying to do, over all this period of time, was to ask the United States government to respect our constitution and our laws. We are small, we are poor, but we are a sovereign state," she testified.
Golding, whose party long counted on political support inside Coke's Tivoli Gardens slum stronghold, opposed the U.S. extradition request for nine months before reversing himself under pressure that threatened his political career.
At the time, the U.S. State Department suggested corruption could be holding up the extradition, noting Coke had ties to the Labor party and essentially controlled the Tivoli Gardens area in West Kingston, the home constituency of Golding.
The bloody standoff to catch Coke brought to the fore the lingering affiliations between criminal leaders and Jamaica's two major political parties, which have long relied on "community dons" to produce votes during elections.
The commission is expected to resume hearings next week.