ACLU sues Coast Guard over alleged treatment of Jamaican fishermen

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The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Wednesday claiming the US Coast Guard improperly detained four Jamaican fishermen and kept them in inhumane conditions for more than a month.

The ACLU claimed in a news release that “the Coast Guard seized the fishermen and destroyed their boat by setting it on fire and riddling it with bullets,” and “held the men in secret for more than a month, chaining them to the exposed decks of four different Coast Guard ships all while denying them access to shelter, basic sanitation, proper food, and medical care.”

“The Coast Guard has no authority to kidnap and disappear fishermen who are trying to make a living for themselves and their families,” Steven Watt, a spokesman for the ACLU, said in the release.

“The Coast Guard chained our clients to decks of its ships for over a month, exposed them to the elements, even during a hurricane, and didn’t even let them tell their families that they were alive,” Watt said in the statement. “These men deserve justice.”

The fishermen suffer from “physical and psychological trauma” and are “financially ruined,” according to the ACLU. The organization named the fisherman as Robert Dexter Weir, Patrick Wayne Ferguson, Luther Fian Patterson and David Roderick Williams.

The men were barred by the Coast Guard from contacting their families for more than a month, according to the ACLU, and later learned their families had presumed the fishermen were dead when they didn’t return home from their trip.

“There are no human rights out there,” Patterson said, according to the release. “They treat you like animals. You are like an animal … chained to the deck on your foot.”

A spokesman for the Coast Guard, Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, hit back at the claims.

McBride said in September 2017 the Coast Guard intercepted a vessel near Haiti and recovered about 600 pounds of marijuana that the crew had thrown overboard. The Coast Guard detained the “five crewmembers — each of whom claimed Jamaican citizenship” as they awaited permission from the Jamaican government to prosecute the fisherman in the US.

“Before arriving in Miami, Florida, where they were prosecuted, the five Jamaican detainees were transferred multiple times, to multiple Coast Guard vessels,” due to operational scheduling during Hurricane Maria response operations, according to McBride.

“In January 2018, each of the crewmembers pled guilty to making a false official statement to a law enforcement officer and were sentenced to ten months’ imprisonment,” McBride said.

“The Coast Guard complies with both international and U.S. domestic law and works closely with our Department of Justice and Department of State colleagues to ensure that compliance,” McBride added. “All suspects are cared for humanely while preserving the security of both the crew and suspects.”

The ACLU claims the fisherman “had not lied to the Coast Guard officers. They pleaded guilty because they were told that it was the quickest and surest way to get back to their homes and families in Jamaica and to put an end to their nightmare.”

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU and the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP against the coast guard in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

CNN’s Geneva Sands contributed to this report.