Haiti: President Martelly must not waive Baby Doc's crimes

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Michel Martelly makes an appearance at the Lycee Petionville polling station during the recent Haitian elections. Photo: Rozanna Fang/Flickr

The inauguration of Michel Martelly to the Haitian presidency on May 14 should sound serious alarm for those concerned with human rights, justice and the rule of law in the country. In a pre-inaugural interview with the Montreal daily La Presse on April 18, Martelly put forward a plan of national reconciliation which would include granting amnesty to former Haitian ruler Jean Claude Duvalier.

The president-elect later backed away from this idea on advice from his counsel. But his connections to the former dictator present some worrying potential for ongoing efforts to prosecute him.

In the La Presse interview, Martelly was asked about the return this year of Mr. Duvalier and former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti. On amnesty, he said, "... we won't take hasty decisions, but I'm leaning toward the side of amnesty and forgiveness so that we can think about tomorrow and not yesterday."

While this appears as an admirable tone of reconciliation, the position expressed by Martelly is deeply problematic. Firstly, he cannot legally grant amnesty to Duvalier for the killings, disappearances and political prisons for which the former dictator is responsible. They are crimes against humanity under international law.

Secondly, as concerns Aristide, there are no charges against the former president -- neither in Haitian nor in international law -- for which he could be pardoned.

Duvalier's crimes are documented by human rights agencies such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and by the United Nations, the United States government and reams of credible media reports.

In these circumstances, amnesty would not be an act of national reconciliation. It would have all the appearance of a favour towards Duvalier, and further fictitious allegations against Aristide's name and reputation.

During the recent election, Martelly -- the former kompa singer -- campaigned as a champion of "change," a "political outsider." In a March 2, 2011 interview with Agence France Presse, the self-proclaimed outsider raised alarm by stating he was "ready" to work with officials who had served under the Duvalier regimes.

One of his advisors, Gervais Charles, currently serves as Jean-Claude Duvalier's lawyer, and Daniel Supplice, co-ordinator of Martelly's transition team, is a childhood friend and former schoolmate of Jean Claude Duvalier. He served as minister of social affairs under Duvalier.

Martelly's nominee for prime minister, Daniel-Gérard Rouzier, is a member of the Haitian elite that violently opposed the elections of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the social reforms his governments sought to implement. Rouzier's father also was a minister in Duvalier's government.

Martelly's open support of the 1991 and 2004 coups against Aristide clearly shows his selective taste for democracy.

The crimes of Jean Claude Duvalier

With Duvalier's return to Haiti in January 2011, the Haitian government under President René Préval opened two criminal proceedings, one for financial crimes and the other for crimes against persons. There are none against Jean Bertrand Aristide.

François Duvalier and his son, Jean Claude (who inherited the Haitian presidency in 1971) were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 60,000 people. The vast majority were political opponents or innocents suspected of subversion. Thousands more were brutally tortured at the infamous Fort Dimanche -- one of three notorious prisons that formed Duvalier's "triangle of death."

As President-for-Life, Jean-Claude Duvalier did not even try to hide his financial crimes. According to the Jan. 25, 2011 Miami Herald, "Lawyers estimated that Haiti's former dictator embezzled at least a half-billion dollars through an elaborate scheme of false companies, phony charities and transfers in the name of friends and family."

International and Haitian law obliges the Government of Haiti to seek prosecution of Jean Claude Duvalier. That obligation, says an April 2011 report by Human Rights Watch, "cannot be undermined by statutes of limitations, amnesties, or other domestic legal obstacles." 

If President Martelly can get away with a false Duvalier-Aristide equivalence, it's in part because of so many unproven insinuations and false charges against Aristide floated in media, internet and hostile political circles. It is difficult to disprove accusations against Aristide because none have been tested in court. When accusations are disproven, the detractors don't fight back, they just move on to the next dubious accusation.

Today, there is a very real threat of old accusations or charges against Aristide being resurrected in new forms in order to further mislead public attention and further obstruct a needed reckoning with the crimes of the Duvalier regime. This would not be the first time.

History of false accusations and jailings

Notwithstanding the millions of dollars allocated by the United States government to find credible allegations that Aristide looted Haiti's public treasury or engaged in narcotics trafficking, the accusations remain unsubstantiated. Not a shred of evidence has been presented to a court.

As outlined in the book, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward, in Nov. 2005, 21 months after the second, foreign-sponsored coup d'etat against Aristide, the illegal regime of Gerard Latortue presented a RICO lawsuit in a U.S. (not Haitian) court, accusing Aristide of corruption and embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars.

The case was a lost cause from the start. It was not even served on any of the defendants and was quietly withdrawn in July 2006. But it did succeed in tarnishing the reputation of Aristide.

The strongest claim against the ousted president was made by the U.S. Attorney in Miami after the arrest of Oriel Jean, the leading member of Aristide's security team on drug charges, one week after the coup. In May 2004, Jean's lawyer, admitted that his client was fully co-operating with the DEA in order to receive "favours," such as a reduced sentence, in exchange for information about Aristide's inner-circle. However, the U.S. government was again disappointed when following his sentence to three years for involvement in drug running, Oriel Jean could produce no evidence against Aristide.

One of the most striking examples of bias, persecution and demonization of Aristide's Lavalas party colleagues was the charge of genocide levelled against Prime Minister Yvon Neptune in September 2005, more than a year after his initial arrest and detainment in June of 2004. The accusation came from a CIDA funded, anti-Lavalas organization called the National Coalition of Haitian Rights which claimed that a "genocidal massacre" had taken place in the town of St. Marc on Feb. 11, 2004. The organization claimed that Neptune had cold-bloodedly ordered the deaths of 50 anti-Lavalas activists.

The only connection between Neptune and the massacre was the fact that he had visited St. Marc two days earlier to appeal for calm in the face of the foreign funded paramilitary rebellion underway in the north of Haiti. Neptune was accompanied by journalists from the Miami Herald, AP, and the New York Times which reported that, indeed, five people had been reported killed during clashes between pro and anti-Aristide forces in St. Marc. The false allegations contributed to the illegal and ultimately unjustified imprisonment of Neptune from June 2004 to July 2006.

The international community also turned a blind eye to actual assaults on Lavalas supporters during the Latortue regime. The September 2, 2006 issue of the prestigious U.K. medical journal The Lancet, published a study documenting some 8,000 killings in Haiti during the two-year coup regime, most of them members or supporters of the Aristide-led Lavalas party and movement.

Only a Duvalier prosecution can bring justice

President Martelly's ruminations of reconciliation have the appearance of a political ploy to get Jean Claude Duvalier off the hook. This is given an appearance of neutrality by "forgiving" non-existent charges against Jean Bertrand Aristide. Comparing the two leaders in this way trivializes the crimes for which Duvalier needs to be held accountable.

A failure to prosecute Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in an impartial court would add insult to the injuries Haiti has already suffered in the form of the earthquake, cholera and political unrest related to the November 2010/March 2011 fraudulent election. Regretfully, the same powers responsible for the 2004 coup (United States, France and Canada) have yet to insist that Haiti respect its obligations to prosecute Duvalier. They should do so, for it is a necessary and symbolic act of justice that will ripple throughout the nation, showing that not all is lost in such difficult times.

The case of Duvalier is a moment of moral clarity. It offers a much-needed opening to further a process of healing and rebuilding in Haiti. Justice delayed is not always justice denied.

An ongoing memorial to the thousands of victims of the Duvaliers can be accessed here.

This article is an abridged version of the original which is due to appear in Haiti Liberté.

Kevin Edmonds is a freelance journalist and graduate student at McMaster University's Globalization Institute in Hamilton, Ontario. Roger Annis is a co-ordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network and resides in Vancouver. He can be reached by clicking here.

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