Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Priest’s Arrest an Injustice That Hits Home

Haiti Human Rights Alert:

Priest’s Arrest an Injustice That Hits Home

Jim DeFede — In My Opinion

Soon after Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide,
was forced to leave Haiti in February, Kernst Jean-Juste begged his brother,
the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, to do the same.

”I tried to convince him to come back to Miami and wait for things to calm
down,” Kernst recalled. ‘But he said, `No, I’m Haitian and I’m staying. And
if I have to die, I’ll die in my country.’ ”

For nearly three decades, the maverick Roman Catholic priest has placed the
needs of Haiti’s poor above his own and has been a relentless champion for
democracy.

”I believe in justice,” Jean-Juste once told The Herald. “The taste of
freedom for somebody else is a great victory for me.”

On Wednesday, Jean-Juste was arrested as he was feeding almost 600 children
from his church in Port-au-Prince. The government accuses him of inciting
violence and aiding a brutal faction of Lavalas Family, Aristide’s political
party.

”My brother is a peaceful person,” his sister, Francine Jean-Juste Delica,
told me. “He is a nonviolent person.”

”Anyone who was an Aristide supporter is being persecuted in Haiti,”
Kernst added.

In recent weeks, numerous Lavalas leaders have been arrested — many without
any formal charges. Among those jailed: Haiti’s former Prime Minister Yvon
Neptune and the former Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert. Two
Lavalas senators were arrested this month for criticizing the government on
a radio program.

On Friday, as they have on other occasions, Haitian police, backed by United
Nations troops, stormed through a slum in Port-au-Prince, conducting mass
arrests while killing or wounding an untold number of innocent civilians.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue — backed by the United States —
argues the arrests, including Father Jean-Juste and the other Lavalas
leaders, are needed to maintain order.

Yet Latortue has failed to disarm or curb the activities of the rebels who
control most of the country. Latortue’s one-sided assault on Lavalas will
only increase the violence in a country seemingly headed for a civil war. In
addition to Jean-Juste, there are reports two other priests have also been
arrested in recent days. But the arrest of Jean-Juste — the first Haitian
native ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the U.S. — strikes a chord in
Miami because of his connection here.

After being ordained in Brooklyn in 1971, he returned to Haiti where he was
assigned to a small rural parish. The young priest’s sermons and charismatic
style, however, made him a target for Duvalier’s brutal police, forcing him
to flee Haiti after just five months.

Back in the United States, he earned a degree in civil engineering from
Northeastern University while serving at a nearby Boston parish where he
also taught English to recent immigrants. In 1977, he visited Miami for two
weeks to preach and celebrate Mass. Jean-Juste became so enthralled by
Miami’s burgeoning Haitian community that he moved here in 1978 to focus on
the plight of Haitians escaping that country’s dictatorship.

That same year, he founded the Haitian Refugee Center that challenged the
federal government’s policies regarding refugees and won a series of
landmark court cases. In 1981, for instance, Jean-Juste and the center won
the release of nearly 2,000 Haitians who were being detained at the U.S.
naval base in Cuba.

Jean-Juste’s habit of being outspoken and defiant irritated his superiors in
the Miami Archdiocese, who frowned on his mixture of politics and theology.
Soon after arriving in Miami, he was stripped of his right to celebrate Mass
here.

”The church must speak to all and it has a duty to preach the gospel of
liberation in its integrity,” Jean-Juste once said.

In 1991, with the election of Aristide, he returned to Haiti. ”I come from
the peasantry,” he said, “and the homeland has a strong draw for us.”

Now the 57-year-old priest who preaches the gospel of liberation sits in a

 

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