By Brian Concannon, Boston Haitian Reporter
Before dawn on August 17, a jury in Port-au-Prince found notorious Haitian rights abusers Jackson Joanis and Jodel Chamblain not guilty of the 1993 murder of businessman Antoine Izmery. The jury probably made the right decision- the prosecutor and other judicial officials had made sure that they did not see or hear enough evidence to convict. The trial was a slap in the face to anyone who cares about the rule of law- Amnesty International called it “an insult to justice,” the Washington Post “sham justice,” the New York Times an “ugly example of a Haitian government that shields its political gangster allies from justice.”
The brazenness of the judicial authorities, who did not even pretend to take the trial seriously, is matched only by the gunmen who murdered Antoine Izmery. Haiti’s September 11 tragedy came in 1993, when Izmery, a prominent supporter of President Aristide, organized a mass at Port-au-Prince’s Sacre Coeur church to commemorate the anniversary of the 1988 St. Jean Bosco Massacre (also on September 11). Soldiers and paramilitaries marched into the church packed with democracy supporters, Haitian and international journalists, the diplomatic corps in Haiti and UN/OAS Human Rights Observers. They dragged Izmery outside and shot him on the sidewalk.
Both Joanis and Chamblain were convicted, in absentia for Izmery’s murder in 1995. Jackson Joanis had been a Captain in the Haitian Army, and head of the “Anti-Gang” police, the de facto period’s most feared army unit. Joanis fled to Miami, but he was arrested and deported to Haiti in 2001, because of his record of political persecution. He has been formally charged in the 1994 assassination of Fr. Jean-Marie Vincent, and was identified as a major human rights abuser in reports by Amnesty International, the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the U.S. Government.
Jodel Chamblain was the co-founder and chief of operations of FRAPH (Front Révolutionnaire pour l’Avancement et le Progrès Haïtiens), Haiti’s most notorious death squad. He was convicted in absentia for murder in the 2000 Raboteau Massacre trial. After the 1994 return of Haiti’s constitutional government, Chamblain fled to the Dominican Republic, where he trained with other paramilitaries and former soldiers in exile. He returned to Haiti in February as a leader of the insurgency that attacked towns in Haiti’s north, killing police officers, destroying prisons and terrorizing the civilian population.
Although Chamblain turned himself in to police in April, his colleagues in the insurgency control many areas of Haiti, and operate in every major city. Both the insurgency and the allied de facto authorities have engaged in widespread attacks against those perceived to support Haiti’s constitutional government, including hundreds of killings, as well as illegal political arrests and detentions, and rapes, beatings and other torture. They have attacked the justice system as well- the judge who convicted Chamblain in the Raboteau case was beaten into the hospital by men claiming to be retaliating for Chamblain’s Raboteau conviction. In April, Chamblain boasted to reporters that he was acting as a “judge” in Cap Haitian. In July, ANAMAH, the Haitian national judges’ association, issued a press release deploring the increase in the politicization of justice and illegal arrests over the previous four months. Later that month, when a judge in Les Cayes ordered the release of political prisoner Jacques Mathelier, the authorities transferred the prisoner to Port-au-Prince, where he remains incarcerated.
When Chamblain turned himself in, Minister of Justice Bernard Gousse declared that Chamblain “had nothing to hide,” and later speculated that he would pardon him if he were convicted. A month earlier, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue praised Chamblain and his insurgency colleagues as “Freedom Fighters.”
Chamblain and Joanis did have the right to a new trial under Haitian law, because they had been convicted in absentia. The law requires the case to be assigned to an “Investigating Magistrate” (Juge D’Instruction) who reviews the relevant evidence, interrogates the suspects and any potential witnesses, and issues a formal charging document called the ordonnance. The Prosecutor (Commissaire du Gouvernement) is then entrusted with preparing the case and presenting it to the jury, including contacting witnesses and ensuring their presence at trial, and presenting all documentary evidence.
In this case, no investigating magistrate questioned either Joanis or Chamblain, nor did anyone look for additional evidence. Officials simply re-filed the ordonnance from the first trial nine years ago. They did not add any additional evidence to the case file, not even the section on the Izmery killing from Haiti’s Truth and Justice Commission report. People and organizations known to possess relevant information were not contacted for the investigation.
The Prosecutor made almost no effort to obtain witness testimony. Many witnesses known to have information were not contacted at all. Notices were sent to only eight people, at least one of whom had passed away, and these were sent on August 13, the last weekday before trial. Only one of the witnesses appeared, and he had not been at the church the day of the assassination, and had no evidence to give the court.
The trial was not announced until three business days before the start date. This secrecy violated the law’s notice requirements, and provided the defendants with a cause for appeal had they been found guilty. The illegally short notice also limited monitoring by national and international human rights groups.
The Izmery trial began on a Monday afternoon continued into the night and ended just before dawn. The prosecutor presented no witnesses and no documents. He was obviously unfamiliar with the file, and made no attempt to present a convincing argument to the jury. Many observers and journalists left the trial in the early evening, afraid of downtown Port-au-Prince after dark. The jury stayed up all night until they issued their verdict.
Last month’s sham trial was the first step in clearing Chamblain and Joanis. Both remain in prison awaiting trials on their other charges. Chamblain’s lawyer predicted a new trial on his in absentia Raboteau conviction within a month. Joanis’ trial for the killing of Fr. Jean-Marie Vincent has not been announced.
Haiti’s interim officials will continue their program to whitewash the criminal records of Chamblain and Joanis as long as they can get away with it. There was no international outcry when the Minister of Justice announced that he might pardon Chamblain, or that Chamblain had nothing to hide. Few outside of the CARICOM countries protested the Prime Minister’s “Freedom Fighters” speech (the OAS Ambassador stood by Latortue on the podium).
There was a wide condemnation of the Izmery trial, which may signal that the interim government has gone too far. Even the U.S. State Department was “deeply concerned” over the acquittal, and “deeply regret[s] the haste with which their cases were brought to retrial.” But on July 17, the State Department announced that the illegal imprisonment of Prime Minister Yvon Neptune “is a source of some concern which we’ve raised with the government of Haiti.” Three days later the U.S. pledged $230 million to the Haitian government, six weeks later Neptune has still not seen the judge who issued his arrest warrant. U.S. “concern” over the Izmery case did not delay a $9 million grant to the Haitian government last week.
Chamblain’s retrial in the Raboteau Massacre case will provide a test of the international community’s commitment to justice in Haiti. Judicial officials may disguise their lack of effort better next time, but the international community should not accept the results unless the trial meets the standards of fairness and technical competence set by the previous Raboteau trial. This includes a thorough preparation by the investigating magistrate, an aggressive prosecution by the prosecutor and security conditions that allow victims and witnesses to testify without fear of reprisals.
If Chamblain’s Raboteau retrial does not meet these standards, the international community must respond decisively, and with actions rather than just words. Right now, the donor community should put Haitian officials on notice that they are watching, and that they consider Chamblain’s trial a test of the Latortue government’s commitment to building upon a foundation of justice. If a trial is set without adequate pre-trial preparation, or without establishing a climate of security for witnesses and victims, donors and human rights groups should declare the proceedings unacceptable, and insist they be postponed until there is adequate preparation. If the authorities hold an inadequate trial anyway, all international assistance to the government should be stopped immediately.
Thousands of Haitians and many foreigners struggled and sacrificed for justice in Haiti from Izmery’s assassination in 1993 up through last month. Their collective effort did not create a perfect system, but it did show the possibilities of justice in trials such as the Carrefour Feuilles and Raboteau prosecutions. Last month’s Izmery trial started turning back the clock, away from this progress to a time when guns meant more than laws, and trials were theater pieces that confirmed a result pre-ordained by the powerful. The clock will continue to go backwards, until we stop it.
Brian Concannon Jr. directs the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (www.ijdh.org). He lived in Haiti from 1995 to 2004, working for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a group of lawyers established by Haiti’s constitutional governments to help human rights victims pursue their cases in Haitian courts.