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

Human Rights

 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.”

Yet many within Haiti and in the international community believe Jean-Claude Duvalier will never be put on trial. Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, elected in April of 2011, is on record supporting amnesty for Duvalier and has several former “Duvalierists” in his administration and circle of aides, including the former president’s 28-year-old son, Francois Nicolas Duvalier. Most Haitians alive today are too young to remember much about the Duvalier era, and some even look back nostalgically at a time when the desperately poor country may have seemed a little less poor. In a few spots around Port-au-Prince, one can see graffiti spray-painted on concrete walls: “JC Duvalier. Nou tann pou ou”—we are waiting for you. The message is one of welcome, not vengeance.

If not quite as welcoming, the Obama administration’s reaction to Duvalier’s return to Haiti contains no note of disapproval, despite the U.S. record of vigorous support for prosecution of human rights violators from Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have called on Haiti to prosecute Duvalier, the U.S., which provided significant financial support to Duvalier during the Cold War, has remained silent. When Duvalier returned to Haiti, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley said “As to his [Duvalier's] status in the country and what happens, this is a matter for the government of Haiti and the people of Haiti.” 

One Capitol Hill official who agrees with the State Department stance defends the U.S. position. “People in Haiti need food, they need clean water, they need houses to live in,” the official said. “The new President needs a chance to succeed and our support in doing so. Wouldn’t you rather put U.S. pressure and resources into those essentials rather than a very difficult and complicated prosecution of someone who has not been in power for a quarter century?”

Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, says this view is short-sighted. “If you look at the long term, Haiti is never going to become a successful and prosperous country until we have the kind of accountability that the Duvalier trial would allow us to have.” Concannon says. “It is accountability for political violence crimes, and perhaps even more important, it is accountability for stealing the Haitian people’s money. And if the lesson is that Duvalier, who did not even try to hide how he stole government funds, is allowed to be going around to the fancy restaurants and clubs in Petionville (the wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince where Duvalier now lives), that is a lesson to current officials that there are no consequences to stealing money.”

Human Rights Watch’s Reed Brody acknowledges the difficulty in prosecuting crimes that occurred decades ago, especially when that prosecution would be brought in a Haitian justice system weakened by neglect, underfunding, and the 2010 earthquake that destroyed so much infrastructure. But a Duvalier prosecution can be done, Brody insists, pointing to a previous Haiti prosecution also spurred by the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux that established a precedent for a leader to be held accountable for human rights abuses committed by others under his command. Plus, Brody says, there is plenty of international precedent for bringing a country leader to justice many years after the repression and corruption occurred. “Countries from Argentina to Uruguay to Bangladesh to Cambodia are prosecuting human rights crimes from decades ago,” he says. “There is no reason why Haiti cannot do the same.”

Raymond Davius hopes that is true. A broad-shouldered 55 year-old with a round face and receding gray hair, he leans out of his chair to mimic his hands being tied behind his ankles and a stick pushed between his legs and arms so that he is drawn into a ball, the preferred position for Duvalier’s army when they would beat him with a baton gayak, a two-foot long rod.  A former Haitian army officer, Davius left the forces in 1978 to join the same Christian Democrat party to which Myrtha Jean-Baptiste’s family belonged. He was seized by government officials soon after, the first in a series of arrests that would total seventeen in all, including imprisonment in the notorious Casernes Dessalines barracks and National Penitentiary. Davius was eventually able to escape to asylum in Venezuela. Now, he has some scars on his head from the beatings, but the deepest wounds are harder to see. “The effects of this are inside me all the time,” he says. The large man’s eyes fill as he talks about family and job troubles. “My comportment is not normal compared to other people, and I have problems in my life. People think I am crazy.”

He pauses to collect himself. “The problem is not as much about Duvalier himself as it is what he represents. If Haiti does not judge Duvalier, we have lost the opportunity to send a message to Haitian leaders who think they can kill whoever they want and steal whatever they want, and not be judged.

“We have a proverb in Creole: Si pa gen sitire pa ka gen vole.”

Translation: If there is no tolerance there would be no thieves. 

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