Rights groups to monitor 'Baby Doc' case

2013-02-20 11:04
Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and his wife Veronique Roy Duvalier arrive in front of the Palace of Justice in Port-au-Prince. (Thony Belizaire, AFP)

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and his wife Veronique Roy Duvalier arrive in front of the Palace of Justice in Port-au-Prince. (Thony Belizaire, AFP)

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Port-Au-Prince - Two years after his surprise return to Haiti after a quarter century in exile, former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier is to hear what charges his homeland could bring against him.

The once-feared 61-year-old - who ruled Haiti for almost 15 years between 1971 and 1986 - astonished Haiti in January 2011 when he flew back from Paris after 25 years away and moved into a plush Port-au-Prince neighbourhood.

Baby Doc was the world's youngest head of state when, aged 19, he succeeded his late autocratic father Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. His rule was initially seen as more benign, before he too adopted hardline dictatorial measures.

Haiti, a republic on the western half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola populated mainly by the descendants of former slaves, remained the poorest country in the Americas, and Duvalier was eventually overthrown in a 1986 revolt.

Since his return a year after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the Port-Au-Prince region and left more than a quarter of a million dead, several Haitian individuals and groups have attempted to bring charges against him.

Former opposition figures have accused him of deploying the feared Tonton Macoute militia and of complicity in murder, torture and kidnapping.

Appeal

But, to the disgust of human rights organisations, a Haiti court decided last year that too much time had passed for him to be charged with crimes against humanity, which are protected by a statute of limitations.

On Thursday, a Haitian judge is expected to hear an appeal against this decision, although Duvalier's lawyer Fritzo Canton said the defence has lodged a motion with a superior court that could delay the process.

Duvalier had initially been supposed to attend the court on 7 February, but failed to turn up and instead sent a letter accusing the judge of taking the plaintiff's side and asking for the hearing to be postponed.

The 7th of February was the anniversary of the 1986 day when Duvalier was overthrown, and Canton argued it had been "unwise" for the judge to summon him to appear on "a date so charged with resentment and emotion."

Speaking for the victims of the former regime, lawyer and former justice minister Jean-Joseph Exume said: "Duvalier must be obliged to come before the court, whatever the circumstances."

Exume, who represents a dozen former political prisoners and their relatives, fears that Baby Doc, who once pronounced himself "president for life", will end up escaping justice just as he once escaped his homeland.

Rehabilitation of memory

"The Haitian justice system is weak, corrupt and under the control of the political executive," he warned.

Several Haitian commentators have warned that Duvalier's return to Haiti marked the start of an attempt to rehabilitate his memory and perhaps even to make a political comeback for the formerly reviled leader.

"Legal complaints have been lodged and there are witness statements about murder, arbitrary detention, disappearances and summary execution under Duvalier," said historian Suzy Castor, who fled Haiti a political refugee.

"There is a duty for justice to be done," she declared. "We need to be vigilant and take care. There is a danger of returning to the pre-1986 period. History could repeat itself."

- SAPA

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