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Will Jean-Claude Duvalier Ever Stand Trial for His Crimes Against Haiti?

Judging Duvalier has become an opportunity to send a message, but prosecuting old crimes in a neglected justice system has its challenges.

Photo Credit: abirdie on Flickr


 Myrtha Jean-Baptiste was thirteen years old the first time that Jean-Claude Duvalier’s army arrested her. In August, 1979, a special intelligence unit based out of the Casernes Dessalines barracks on the grounds of Haiti’s Presidential Palace burst into Jean-Baptiste’s family home in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood and seized her, along with her mother, sister, three brothers, and a brother-in-law. 

The family crime was membership in the Haitian Christian Democrat Party which opposed Duvalier. Jean-Baptiste was interrogated and released, but the rest of her family stayed behind bars. Her brothers were held for over two years without ever going to court, and were beaten and tortured by army jailers until the young men bled from their ears. “When they came back, their bodies were broken,” Jean-Baptiste says. The brothers died within a few months after their release from prison. Jean-Baptiste herself was arrested again at age 15 and brought to the National Penitentiary, where she was held—also without trial—for one year and 21 days.

Stories like Jean-Baptiste’s were common in Haiti during Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s presidency from 1971 to 1986. After assuming control of the country at age 19 after the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the son followed in a bloody family tradition.  The Haitian military and the notorious paramilitary tonton macoutes created by the senior Duvalier squelched dissent by jailing, torturing, and killing hundreds of political opponents and journalists. Investigations by groups including Human Rights Watch show Jean-Claude Duvalier was fully aware of and supported the abuses committed under his command.

 Newspapers and radio stations that dared to criticize the Duvalier government were shut down, and millions of dollars in government funds were diverted to Duvalier’s personal use. At one point in 1982, Duvalier’s own finance minister reported that $15 million per month in public funds was being directed to “extraordinary expenses,” including deposits to Duvalier’s personal Swiss bank account.  The finance minister was quickly fired, but increasing public outcry finally led to Duvalier fleeing into exile in 1986.

Twenty five years later, Myrtha Jean-Baptiste sits in the office of a human rights organization in Port-au-Prince recounting her memories from the era. Now a woman of 45, she has high cheekbones and wears a white lace blouse, but she is unsmiling and declines to be photographed. Her story gained renewed relevance on January 16, 2011, when Duvalier suddenly returned to Haiti. Although he has been charged with political and financial crimes and is periodically called in for questioning by an investigating judge, Duvalier enjoys a remarkably liberal definition of house arrest, meeting with political leaders and moving about the more expensive restaurants and clubs of Port-au-Prince. Jean-Baptiste is among many Duvalier-era victims who were stunned to learn that the former “President for Life” had dared to return to Haiti, and even more shocked to see that he remains a free man, with no trial set. “There is only one way to stop him,” she says in Creole. “Jije li.”  

Judge him.  

That is precisely the aim of the Haitian human rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, known as BAI. Along with its U.S.-based partner, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, BAI represents Jean-Baptiste and a group of other Duvalier-era victims who call themselves the Citizens Coalition for Prosecuting Duvalier. Employing the partie civile mechanism in the Haitian justice system, which allows crime victims to actively participate in the prosecution of an alleged criminal, the lawyers have filed several individual claims on behalf of Duvalier’s victims, and provided the investigating judge with piles of evidence of financial and political crimes.  “A Duvalier process and trial would mean so much for Haiti,” says attorney Mario Joseph, director of BAI. “It will help people believe in the system of justice if they see a defendant held accountable who stole our country’s money and killed and imprisoned people.”