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Aristide's lawyer dismisses State Department warning

From the CNN Wire Staff
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled former president of Haiti, wants to return to the island nation within a week.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled former president of Haiti, wants to return to the island nation within a week.
  • NEW: "The U.S. has worked "to keep him halfway around the world," Aristide's lawyer says
  • The exiled former president has declared his intent to return
  • A runoff election is set for Sunday
  • Aristide's return could destabilize the process, the State Department says

(CNN) -- A lawyer for former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide scoffed Monday at a U.S. government warning that his client's planned return to Haiti from South Africa could disrupt elections scheduled for Sunday.

"The U.S. government has done everything they can to keep him halfway around the world," said Ira Kurzban, Aristide's longtime, Miami-based lawyer. "For them to issue this ridiculous statement that it was voluntary and that he voluntarily stayed in South Africa is pure fiction. He's been trying to come back for seven years."

Kurzban was referring to a comment made by State Department spokesman Mark Toner, who said Monday, "Mr. Aristide has chosen to remain outside of Haiti for seven years. To return this week can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti's elections. ... Return prior to the election may potentially be destabilizing to the political process."

Kurzban said Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, is planning to return before Sunday's elections, though he said he did not know when.

Aristide has long said that he was removed from Haiti in 2004 aboard a CIA plane in a coup carried out by the U.S. government. U.S. authorities have said they were seeking to prevent him from being violently overthrown by domestic unrest.

Since then, Aristide has been trying to return to Haiti to work in education, Kurzban said. He particularly wants to return prior to the election so that any new government will not have the opportunity to keep him out, something he said the U.S. government would support.

"The U.S. government is very involved in keeping Aristide out and trying to shepherd in a right-wing government," the lawyer said.

Since 2004, Aristide has been teaching in South Africa and trying to arrange for his return to Haiti, his lawyer said. In February, he received a new Haitian passport.

But the lawyer conceded that Aristide's return would draw attention away from the current list of presidential candidates.

"It's clear that the candidates now running for office have very low popularity among the Haitian people and the U.S. doesn't want a figure as popular as Aristide coming back," Kurzban said. "He's a populist and represents the aspirations of the Haitian people and (U.S. government officials) are, I think, afraid that those aspirations may not be consistent with the interests of supporting the elite in Haiti."

Toner said that the Haitian constitution gives Aristide the right to return and that the decision to allow that is in the hands of the Haitian government.

"We would urge former President Aristide to delay his return until after the electoral process has concluded to permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere," Toner told reporters at a State Department briefing unrelated to Haiti.

And the State Department spokesman asked South Africa, where Aristide and his family have lived since he left Haiti voluntarily in 2004, to also make the case against his return.

"We encourage the South African government as a committed partner to Haiti's stability to urge former president Aristide to delay his return until after the elections," Toner said.

CNN's Tom Watkins and Charley Keyes contributed to this story