Boston Haitian Reporter
Brian Concannon Jr.
January marks the beginning of Carnaval season in Haiti- every Sunday afternoon the bandes-a-pied (literally, bands-on-foot) and their followers take to town and city streets, strutting their stuff in preparation for les trois jours gras- the three fat days- of celebrating before Ash Wednesday. The bandes-a pied are eventually joined by better-financed bands on chars – trailers piled high with loudspeakers- and by dancers dressed as Indians, actors poking fun at politicians and Chaloska- usually men, with savage-looking masks, snarling at the young and the timid in the crowd.
Chaloska comes from General Charles-Oscar Etienne, Port-au-Prince’s police chief in the first half of 1915. Etienne’s boss, President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, seized power in February of that year, pursuant to negotiations with the U.S. and after paramilitary groups had chased his predecessor from power. Lacking electoral or constitutional legitimacy, President Sam procured an insurance policy for his rule: starting in March he rounded up potential political opponents or their family members, and packed at least 200 of them- from Haiti’s most privileged families- into the Penitencier National. They were held not by court order- there were no arrest warrants, no evidence in their files or trips to see the judge. They were held by a Presidential directive that Charles Oscar Etienne should kill the political prisoners when he heard the first shot fired against the Sam regime.
That first shot hit the National Palace before dawn on July 27, 1915. By 8:30 AM President Sam had been nicked in the leg with a bullet, had jumped over the wall separating the National Palace from the French Embassy, abandonned his presidency and written his police chief to “do what your conscience dictates.” If this message was meant to spare lives or Guillaume Sam’s reputation, it arrived too late: in the Penitencier Charles-Oscar Etienne had already made his name synonymous with despicable acts of savagery by shooting, hacking and spearing his hostages, executing between 160 and 200.
Almost ninety years later, Haiti is ruled by a Prime Minister who seized power in February, pursuant to negotiations with the U.S. and after paramilitary groups had chased his predecessor from power. Lacking electoral or constitutional legitimacy, he too started rounding up potential political opponents in March, packing them so tightly into the Penitencier National that some need to wait a turn to sleep on the floor.
Prime Minister Gerard Latortue does not fear Haiti’s most privileged families, but its least privileged, so his captives are from Cite Soleil, Bel-Air and Martissant. Like their better fed predecessors, today’s political prisoners were arrested without a warrant, there is no evidence in their files and they are not allowed into court. The Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission estimated there are 700 political prisoners in all. They are kept in conditions so willfully wretched that the United Nations’ official assigned to help improve them quit in November, when the government refused international offers of help.
On December 1, shots rang out near the National Palace during Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit. Later that day Penitencier National inmates protested their mistreatment by breaking out of their cells. No one was hurt in the protest, but special police teams were called in, and they started shooting. No one says the prisoners shot back- the government claims they attacked guards with sharpened toothbrushes and other improvised weapons- but the police kept shooting. Officials say ten people were killed,. witnesses who do not work for the government estimate from several dozen to over 100. A month later the government has still not released the names of the deceased, even to the families
There is no evidence that the December 1 massacre explicitly targeted political prisoners, or of a link between the shooting in the prison and the shooting near the National Palace. But the Latortue regime appears to have something to hide. Not only will it not tell families whether their fathers, sons, husbands and brothers are dead or alive, it prohibits journalists and investigators from talking to prisoners and guards. Prison officials beat at least one prisoner before his release on December 3, threatening him with worse if he spoke to the press.
The government has named its own investigative commissions, and promised to find the truth about the massacre. A sincere effort to investigate would show results: the events took place in a well-defined area over a defined period of time, and there are hundreds of known witnesses, their names listed in prison and guard registers. Determining responsibility for injuries is simplified by the fact that, from all accounts, one side did all the shooting, the other did all the stabbing with toothbrushes. The investigation will therefore test the government’s will to find the truth more than its investigative capacity and resources.
The most disturbing part of the massacre is that whether or not those killed were targeted for their political beliefs, most of them never should have been in the Penitencier in the first place. Only one in fifty prisoners there has been convicted of a crime, only a small minority have ever had a judge say they should be held for trial. For the rest, their killings were the last in a long line of violations of their basic human rights.
It is too late to spare the lives of the men killed, but not too late to establish the truth about their deaths, or to prevent other needless deaths by releasing the remaining political prisoners. President Sam waited to instruct his police chief to “do what your conscience dictates,” and both suffered harsh judgments from the hands of their compatriots and the words of history. Prime Minister Latortue has the chance to learn from history, and the opportunity right now to do the right thing. He should take full advantage of both.
Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. directs the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which issued a report on the prison massacre, available at www.ijdh.org.