One Down, 700 To Go
Boston Haitian Reporter Website
Brian Concannon Jr.
December 2004A cause for Thanks Giving arrived last Monday, four days late for the official celebrations but still most welcome. Haiti’s most famous political prisoner, Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste, drove away from the Omega prison in Carrefour to the Archbishop’s residence in Port-au-Prince.
During seven weeks of incarceration, Haiti’s interim government spared no effort to build a case against Fr. Jean-Juste in the Court of Public Opinion. Prime Minister Gérard Latortue announced there was a valid warrant for his arrest, Justice Minister Bernard Gousse promised evidence that the priest was financing violence, the police declared him responsible for disturbing the peace and for attacking them. The prosecutor insisted Fr. Jean-Juste was an accomplice to two murders.
The interim government worked just as hard to avoid presenting its case in a Court of Law. No judge approved the arrest beforehand, or confirmed it afterwards (both Constitutional requirements, in Haiti as in the U.S.). Fr. Jean-Juste’s legal team- Haitian lawyer Mario Joseph of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and Professor William Quigley of Loyola University in New Orleans- insisted again and again on their client’s right to see a judge, to no avail. Police and prison officials transported Fr. Gerry from police station to prison to other prisons, but never to a courthouse.
The reasons for the government’s fear of the courthouse became clear when the case finally went before a judge on November 12. There was no arrest warrant. Not a single piece of paper in the file linked Fr. Jean-Juste to criminal activity, not a single witness spoke against him. The prosecutor still insisted that Fr. Gerry was a double-murderer, but could not name the murder victims, or say how they died, or where, or when. The government presented nothing to suggest that Fr. Jean-Juste did anything other than feed poor children and speak out against torture, killing and other violence.
The judge, one of Haiti’s most respected, quickly threw the case out and ordered Fr. Jean-Juste released. The government held Fr. Gerry for ten more days, but was eventually forced to obey the release order.
The legal case against Fr. Jean-Juste was no weaker than the cases against most of Haiti’s other political prisoners (the Catholic Church’s Justice & Peace Commission estimates there are 700 of them). People suspected of criticizing the interim regime or supporting the elected government it displaced are routinely arrested, and just as routinely kept away from judges who might test the government’s accusations.
If Fr. Jean-Juste can today walk freely, feed children and say mass, it is because an international outcry forced the interim government to respect the rule of law in his case. Congresswoman Maxine Waters led 31 members of the U.S. House of Representatives (including Barney Frank and James McGovern of Massachusetts) in urging Secretary of State Colin Powell to call for the release of Father Jean-Juste, and “all political prisoners and imprisoned community leaders who have not been charged, or are not being lawfully detained, under Haitian law.”
Religious leaders like Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit deployed their moral authority against the illegal detention. Religious, solidarity and human rights groups throughout Haiti, North America and Europe made statements, circulated information and lobbied authorities. Most important, hundreds, perhaps thousands of ordinary citizens wrote, called or faxed Haitian, U.S. and United Nations officials, to let them know they cared about justice in Haiti
If Prime Minister Latortue counted on Fr. Jean-Juste’s release to muffle this outcry, he may have acted too late. The case drew world attention to all of Haiti’s political prisoners. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that “the arbitrary detention of people solely for their political affiliation is in contravention of fundamental human rights principles,” and called for the release of all political prisoners. On November 10, the countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) refused to recognize the interim government, declaring that they would not “compromise on the fundamental principles of respect for human rights, due process and good governance.” Grenada’s Prime Minister Keith Mitchell urged Haiti to put “a stop to the harassment of the political opposition.”
The interim regime denies there are any more political prisoners, and says that the jailed pro-democracy activists are common criminals. But everyone from the police to the Minister of Justice joined Mr. Latortue in saying the same thing about Fr. Jean-Juste, and in the moment of truth none of them produced a grain of evidence.
World leaders must continue to insist on justice for the 700 political prisoners that Fr. Jean-Juste left behind, especially as International Human Rights Day, December 10, approaches. The rest of us must make sure they do so. Members of Congress, Prime Ministers and UN Secretary Generals do the right thing much more often when their constituents ask them to. Each of us may not have much individual influence, but Haitian history shows over and over again, from the Revolution to the liberation of Fr. Jean-Juste, that men anpil, chay pa lou (many hands make the load light).
Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. directs the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which represents Fr. Jean-Juste. The Institute’s website, www.ijdh.org, contains more information on Haiti’s political prisoners and what you can do about it.