November 9, 2004
Posted on Tue, Nov. 09, 2004
Priest’s detention is another blow to rights in Haiti
The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, the Roman Catholic priest who was dragged from his church last month while feeding the poor children of his Haitian parish, has been moved to a prison in Carrefour.
Initially, after his Oct. 13 arrest, Jean-Juste was held at a jail in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. Seven days later, he was moved to the nearby National Penitentiary.
In Petionville and the National Penitentiary, Jean-Juste saw delegations from the U.S. Embassy, human rights groups and the Catholic Church.
Moving him to a prison in Carrefour, a two- to three-hour drive from the capital, will make it harder for these groups to monitor Jean-Juste’s treatment and also will make it more difficult for Jean-Juste to meet with his attorney.
It is also still unclear what charges — if any — have been formally filed against the priest, who, before returning to Haiti in 1991, spent 13 years in Miami working to protect the rights of Haitian immigrants.
GOD’S WORK IN PRISON
One of the last people to see Jean-Juste, 57, before his sudden transfer was Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit.
”It was very intense, but it was also very rewarding,” Gumbleton told me. “Despite the brutal treatment, Father Jean-Juste remains in great spirits and has found a way to do God’s work right there in the prison.”
At the jail in Petionville, Jean-Juste was held in a cramped cell with up to 14 other people. The conditions at the National Penitentiary were only slightly better — there were 10 men to a cell, according to Gumbleton.
Johanna Berrigan, from the human rights group Pax Christi, accompanied Gumbleton and said Jean-Juste told them about a cellmate who died reportedly from tuberculosis, which can be both fatal and contagious.
”Father Jean-Juste said the guards didn’t remove the body from their cell for 12 hours,” Berrigan said.
Gumbleton and Berrigan said Jean-Juste was less concerned about his own well being than he was for his fellow prisoners. They said Jean-Juste estimated that half of the 1,200 prisoners in the National Penitentiary are being held without charges after being rounded up in massive sweeps through the capital’s poorest neighborhoods, which remain loyal to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
`PLOTTING AGAINST THE STATE’
Gumbleton and Berrigan said they were told by officials at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince that Jean-Juste was facing a charge of “plotting against the security of the state.”
Embassy officials declined to comment on Jean-Juste’s case, referring all questions to the State Department in Washington. State Department officials, in turn, referred all questions to Haitian government officials, who could not be reached for comment.
Neither Jean-Juste nor his attorney have been provided an arrest warrant — as required by the constitution — nor have they ever been given formal notice of the charges.
Jean-Juste’s attorney, Mario Joseph, said he was not surprised to hear the government may be charging his client with plotting against it, although he was amused to hear the U.S. Embassy knew about it before he did.
”That charge is a charge that every dictator in Haiti has used to move against opponents,” Joseph said.
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat who has known Jean-Juste for 25 years, described the arrest as being ”highly suspect” and said if Haitian government officials have evidence against Jean-Juste, they should make it public.
‘In no way can you call what is happening in Haiti `the restoration of democracy,’ ” said Gumbleton, who will urge the Vatican to intercede on Jean-Juste’s behalf. “There is no democracy in Haiti right now.”
Brian Concannon Jr.
Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti