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Human rights groups warn Haiti

NATASHA BECKLES, [email protected]

Human rights groups warn Haiti

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LONDON – Two leading human rights groups have warned that a lack of political will and unacceptable court delays were allowing Haiti’s former “president-for-life,” Jean-Claude Duvalier, to escape justice for human rights violations.
The London-based human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, and the Washington-based Human Rights Watch in a joint statement said that while the authorities in Port au Prince re-opened a criminal case against the former Haitian dictator three years ago, the case has stalled for almost a year.
Duvalier returned to the French-speaking Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country on January 16, 2011, following a 25-year exile in France.
He faces charges of serious human rights violations, such as murder and torture of political opponents, and of corruption.
“It appears that the Haitian authorities have no intention of carrying out thorough investigations into Duvalier-era abuses,” said Javier Zúñiga, Amnesty International’s special adviser to regional programmes.
“The judicial process has stalled, denying victims of his reign of terror their right to truth, justice and reparation. To add insult to injury, Duvalier continues to take part in public events, often at the invitation of the Haitian government.” 
Duvalier, also known as “Baby Doc,” inherited power from his father, the dictator François Duvalier, and ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986. During his rule, the human rights groups said Haitian life was marked by “systematic human rights violations.”
The human rights groups said that hundreds of political prisoners held in a network of prisons, known as the “triangle of death”, including the infamous Fort Dimanche, died from mistreatment or were victims of extrajudicial killings.
They also said Duvalier’s government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations, and that journalists were beaten, in some cases tortured, jailed, and forced to leave the country.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Duvalier is also alleged to have embezzled between US$300 million and US$800 million of assets during his presidency.
In January 2012, an investigating judge ruled that Duvalier should stand trial before a lower court for misappropriation of public funds, but that the statute of limitations had expired on the human rights crimes he was accused of.
Both the human rights victims and Duvalier appealed the decision. The appeal began on December 13, 2012.
Duvalier appeared before the Court on February 28, last year, for the first time giving public testimony related to alleged crimes during his rule.
“In a country in which impunity for the worst crimes has been the norm, Duvalier’s presence in the court was a glimmer of hope for the victims and their families,” said Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson at Human Rights Watch.
“The Haitian authorities have an obligation to prosecute these grave human rights violations. Crimes including torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances are not subject to a statute of limitations.”
Between March and May 2013, eight victims gave testimony in court, despite objections from Duvalier’s lawyers, who have filed an appeal in an effort to prevent the victims’ from exercising their right to participate in the proceedings as civil parties, the human rights groups said.
Victims also faced the hostility of the public prosecutor who seemed to have aligned with the defence, the human rights groups added.
Multiple sources have told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that the Court of Appeal is waiting for some other procedural steps to be carried out before issuing its ruling.
“Under Duvalier and his Tonton Macoutes militia, thousands were tortured, killed, and hundreds of thousands of Haitians fled into exile. Duvalier’s victims shouldn’t have to keep waiting and hoping for justice that never comes,” Brody said.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said while the victims await the court’s decision, Duvalier has been taking part in public events.
Most recently, on January 1, 2014, they said he attended a state ceremony to celebrate Independence Day in the city of Gonaïves.
Former president Prosper Avril, a close Duvalier ally who came to power following a military coup in 1988 and ruled until 1990, also was there, they said.
The groups said President Michel Martelly justified Duvalier’s and Avril’s invitations as important to promote national reconciliation.
“Reconciliation is not possible without justice, truth and reparations,” Zúñiga said.
“This move is seen by many as a blatant attempt by the Haitian authorities to rehabilitate this former dictator, and it only adds insult and injury to the thousands of victims of Duvalier’s rule,” he added. (CMC)