Stevenson Jacobs, AP, May 9, 2007
Survivors of the worst disaster to hit Haitian migrants in years were “angry and revolted” as they accused a Turks and Caicos police vessel of ramming their crowded boat twice before it capsized, killing dozens in shark-infested waters, a senior official said Wednesday.
The shocking allegation against the British territory’s police boat didn’t come out until Tuesday because the 78 survivors of the disaster have been locked in a jail-like detention center and barred from speaking to journalists.
Officials say about 160 migrants were jammed onto a rickety sailboat that capsized before dawn last Friday, spilling most of them into the Atlantic Ocean a half-mile off one of the islands in the Turks and Caicos, 125 miles north of Haiti.
The Turks and Caicos government will not comment on the allegations until two investigations into the incident are completed, said Ben Boddy, an official with the governor’s office. Britain’s Foreign Office also declined to comment pending the investigations.
One probe is being conducted by the local government, and three government experts from Britain are carrying out an independent investigation, said David Stewart, spokesman in London for the Marine Accident Investigation Branch.
Jean-Robert Lafortune, chairman of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Miami, said his group would meet Thursday to discuss the tragedy and might call for the United Nations to investigate.
“We are very concerned that deliberate criminal action may have taken place in the rescue of the Haitian refugee boat,” he said.
Turks and Caicos Gov. Richard Tauwhare said Tuesday the sailboat capsized while it was being towed by a police boat in rough seas, contradicting earlier claims by local officials that police did not arrive on the scene until after the migrant boat capsized.
The known death toll rose to 61 late Tuesday after dozens more bodies were found floating in the ocean, some partially eaten by sharks. More than a dozen migrants remained missing and presumed dead.
The decision to tow the overcrowded sloop in stormy seas without giving life jackets to the migrants has raised safety concerns, but lead British investigator Richard Mull said Turks and Caicos police were following procedure.