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Jamaica PM: Panel will probe Coke extradition

Jamaica's prime minister announced Tuesday that a commission of inquiry will be formed soon to probe his government's handling of a U.S. extradition request for alleged drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke.

During an address in Parliament, Prime Minister Bruce Golding said the membership and terms of the new inquiry will be made public in coming days. He said the panel would also look at the hiring of a lobbying firm to contest the U.S. extradition request for Coke, who the U.S. Justice Department listed as one of the world's most dangerous drug lords.

Church groups, civic organizations and the island's opposition have been calling for a commission of inquiry to be established for months, arguing that Golding's explanations for the Coke affair didn't answer many nagging questions.

"We need a commission of inquiry to get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I wish it would have been earlier, but I don't want to make the good the enemy of the best," said Trevor Munroe, a political scientist at the University of the West Indies.

The prime minister's handling of the case, in particular his authorization of a U.S. firm to lobby Washington to drop the extradition request for Coke, provoked an outcry that threatened his political career.

In recent days, ruling party insider Harold Brady added to the pressure on Golding by publicly disputing the prime minister's claim that he didn't act as government leader in the hiring of the U.S. lobbyists, the Los Angeles-based firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. Brady's allegations were detailed in a letter warning Golding of a libel lawsuit.

Golding said in a nationally televised address in May that he regretted bringing in the lobbying firm in Coke's case, but insisted he acted only in his capacity as head of the Jamaica Labor Party, not as prime minister.

The prime minister stonewalled the U.S. extradition request for nine months, claiming the indictment relied on illegal wiretap evidence. His stance strained relations with Washington, which questioned Jamaica's reliability as an ally in the fight against drug trafficking.

Golding, whose Parliament district includes Coke's West Kingston slum stronghold, came under heavy public pressure and finally agreed to send Coke to the U.S. as questions rose about the reputed drug kingpin's ties to the governing party.

A hunt for Coke in the slums led to four days of fighting in May that killed 73 civilians and three security officers in West Kingston slums. Coke was captured June 22 and sent to the United States days later.

Now jailed in New York, Coke has pleaded not guilty to charges that he trafficked drugs to the eastern United States and funneled profits and weapons back to Kingston, a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere.

Opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller described Golding's decision to launch an inquiry as "a significant first step on the long road to reposition Jamaica in the eyes of the world as a country where the rule of law is paramount."

Simpson Miller, who was prime minister before Golding's Labor Party won 2007 elections, said the affair had damaged Jamaica's reputation and caused "real pain, anguish and anxiety to our citizens."

Warren McDonald, a director of the local chamber of commerce, said he was confident the government's panel will answer Jamaicans' questions about the Coke affair.

"We expect that they will come out with the entire story and clear the air," McDonald told Radio Jamaica.

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Associated Press Writer Howard Campbell in Kingston contributed to this report.