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Partial justice in Haiti

By Joanne Mariner, FindLaw Columnist
Special to CNN.com


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(FindLaw) -- Haiti's new government has underscored its commitment to justice. "The fight against impunity will be a top priority for us," said interim Justice Minister Bernard Gousse when I met him a few weeks ago. "We're planning to investigate human rights abuses, killings, and the pilfering of the state treasury."

The government already has arrested former officials implicated in serious abuses, including the previous government's interior minister and a former parliamentary deputy. It also has announced plans to investigate former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom it condemns as the architect of efforts to repress the country's political opposition.

Haiti's need for fair and impartial justice is clear. The country has long been characterized by what the United Nations' independent expert on Haiti once called a "culture of impunity": a deep public mistrust in the justice system, and a tradition of serious crimes going unpunished. Against this backdrop, the current government's stated pledge to make justice a priority is enormously encouraging.

Yet, up to now, there has been a worrying one-sidedness to the new government's efforts. Its eagerness to prosecute officials of the previous government stands in stark contrast to its apparent indifference to the record of other known perpetrators of grave human rights crimes.

For justice to be fair, it must be evenhanded and apolitical. Here, the signs to date are discouraging.

Justice and the Raboteau massacre

The current government is focused on prosecuting the crimes of the Aristide government, some of which were extremely serious. But even more systematic and widespread abuses were committed under the de facto military government that ruled Haiti from 1991 to 1994, a period that the current government seems ready to ignore.

Two leaders of the armed rebellion that led to President Aristide's recent ouster are among the human rights criminals of the military era. The more notorious of the two is Louis Jodel Chamblain, the apparent second in command to current rebel commander Guy Philippe.

Chamblain -- a founder of the violent paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress (FRAPH), which was active during the last year of military rule -- is responsible for killings, torture and other abuses. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1993 murder of Antoine Izméry, a well-known pro-democracy activist, and for involvement in the 1994 Raboteau massacre.

Another member of the insurgent forces with a history of violent abuses is Jean Pierre Baptiste, better known as Jean Tatoune. Tatoune, a local FRAPH leader during the military government, was also sentenced to life imprisonment for the Raboteau massacre. He escaped from prison in Gonaives in August 2002, during a mass prison break, and later joined the armed insurgency.

Although at least three thousand civilians are believed to have been killed during the time of Haiti's military government, very few of these crimes were ever brought to justice. The most important effort to address past abuses was the prosecution of the April 1994 attack and massacre in the pro-Aristide shantytown of Raboteau.

Sixteen defendants, including Tatoune, were tried and convicted of responsibility for the massacre, in which some 20 people are believed to have been killed. Another 37 defendants were convicted in absentia, including General Raoul Cédras, the head of the military government, Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, one of FRAPH's founders, and Jodel Chamblain.

The killings in Saint Marc

The town of Saint Marc, an hour or so south of the rebel stronghold of Gonaives, was the site of a series of vicious crimes during the last month of Aristide's presidency. The new government has already arrested at least five people for the killings in Saint Marc, including the former minister of interior -- the highest Aristide government official to be arrested to date. The government's focus on Saint Marc suggests that it may view these prosecutions as the exemplary trial of the Aristide government, comparable to the role played by the Raboteau trial for the crimes of the military era.

During almost all of February, a violent pro-government death squad known as Bale Wouze, or Clean Sweep terrorized Saint Marc. Bale Wouze was led by Amanus Mayette, a former parliamentary deputy belonging to Aristide's party whose term had expired in January.

On February 7, two days after the rebel take-over of Gonaives, a lightly armed anti-government group known as Ramicos overran the Saint Marc police station. The government soon sent in police SWAT team reinforcements, known as CIMO, and retook control of the town. Within days, the Bale Wouze and CIMO, working together, attacked the neighborhood of La Scierie, known as a Ramicos stronghold. They were heavily armed, carrying M-14s and M-1s, and wore black masks. They poured diesel fuel on houses associated with Ramicos members and burned down close to a dozen of them. They also burned several people to death.

One victim was a young carpenter named Kenol St. Gilles. On February 11, when Bale Wouze attacked la Scierie, Kenol was on his way home for lunch. His mother was visiting the home of a local pastor when news came that Kenol had been shot in the leg. Kenol's mother went to find Kenol and carried him back to the pastor's house. The pastor's wife was a nurse, and was going to try to treat Kenol's bullet wounds.

The men who had shot Kenol searched the neighborhood house-by-house looking for him. They found Kenol in the pastor's house and dragged him down the road to a depot that they had set on fire. Kenol's mother ran after them, hiding, and saw two men throw Kenol into the burning building. "One was holding his hands and one his feet," she later described. "They just tossed him into the fire."

Human Rights Watch visited Saint Marc in late March and documented a number of vicious killings, including the murder of Kenol St. Gilles. We also learned of the public lynching of seven Bale Wouze members in the immediate wake of Aristide's flight into exile.

Of killers and freedom fighters

Amanus Mayette, the former head of Bale Wouze, fled Saint Marc when Aristide left the country and was later arrested in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. He now faces trial for the Saint Marc murders, along with former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert, and three notorious Bale Wouze members who were captured not long after Aristide's departure.

But whereas the government has vowed to investigate the Saint Marc killings and prosecute them fairly, it has treated abuses from the military era very differently. Indeed, in late March, Haiti's interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue publicly lauded the rebel forces -- whose leaders include both Chamblain and Tatoune -- calling them "freedom fighters." Haiti's interim justice minister has even raised the possibility of granting pardons to Chamblain and Tatoune, though in other statements to the press he has suggested that the government is simply waiting for the right moment to deal with them.

Given the de facto power of the rebel forces, and the interim government's relative weakness, there is no doubt that it would take real political courage to attempt to arrest Chamblain and Tatoune now. But every day that those two notorious killers are allowed to walk around free, armed, and dangerous, is another day in which the failings of Haitian justice are on display.

In the meantime, the legacy of the Raboteau trial is slowly crumbling. A few weeks ago, in another sign of the times, the chief judge of the Raboteau trial was attacked and severely beaten. He said that his attacker threatened to kill him for his role in convicting Chamblain.

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Joanne Mariner, a FindLawexternal link columnist, is deputy director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watchexternal link. Her previous essays on Haiti are available in FindLaw's archives of her columns.


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