By Reed Lindsay, Chronicle Foreign Service
January 2, 2005
Port-au-Prince, Haiti — As U.N. peacekeepers came under heavy gunfire erupting around the national palace during last month’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the smoke billowing from the penitentiary a few blocks away barely registered.
On Dec. 1, prisoners in a three-story cell block called the Titanic rioted, breaking free from their cells, setting fire to mattresses and brandishing water pipes as weapons. Prison guards called in a special police unit that helped put down the riot.
Officials said seven prisoners were killed during the riot, and three of the 40 who were injured have since died of their wounds.
But prisoners and other witnesses contend the government is concealing a bloodbath in which police and prison guards killed dozens of detainees.
“I saw everything,” said Ted Nazaire, 24, a prisoner on the first floor of the Titanic who was released two days after the riot and is now in hiding. “It was a massacre. More than 60 were killed.”
Nazaire said police opened fire on the detainees and then went from cell to cell methodically executing others. He claimed to have witnessed the executions while hiding under a staircase. When he was later discovered, he said, he was badly beaten by prison guards and was warned by the warden not to talk about what he had seen. The guards reminded him that they knew where he lived.
Whether or not these allegations prove true, the killings at the national penitentiary represent another black mark for Haiti’s interim government, which has come under fire for allegedly perpetrating and tolerating a gamut of human rights abuses since taking over last March after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted.
In a November report, the United Nations Development Program warned Haitian officials of a pending riot at the national penitentiary.
“Pressure was going up. I told them that at one point the system will break down, (and) you will have disruption, riots, problems,” said Regis Charron, the U.N. report’s author, who said nothing was done. “Inmates are human beings, too, and if you keep them in such bad conditions, they will let you know it.”
Both prisoners and guards agree the immediate motive behind the riot was a decision to transfer some detainees, but human rights observers have cited both dismal living conditions and mounting frustration at the sluggish legal system as underlying factors.
Charron said the riot was over insufficient food, overcrowded cells, too few mattresses and the lack of productive activities and recreation. He also said only 17 of the some 1,100 prisoners at the national penitentiary — about 1.5 percent — have been convicted of a crime, and many detainees have not yet seen a judge.
While penitentiary officials have refused to grant permission to enter the prison, chief prosecutor Jean Pierre Audain gave a Chronicle reporter special authorization. During the recent visit, which lasted about an hour before guards cut it short, estimates given by prisoners on the number of those killed during the riot ranged from 40 to 110. All disputed the much lower official figures.
“It’s not true,” said Frantz Rubin, a detainee whose cell has a view into the passageway where prisoners allege many of the killings took place. “I saw more than 30 dead people with my own eyes. We all want justice.”
Prisoners eagerly surrounded a visiting journalist, pointing with excitement at bullet holes and what appeared to be the remains of dried blood on concrete walls. Some hurriedly handed over 38-caliber and 9mm shells and the smashed remains of bullets.
In the Titanic, where at least 30 prisoners are packed together in dank bare cells reeking of urine, inmates offered through the bars scraps of paper with descriptions of what had taken place, names of the dead and guards accused of brutality, pleas for help and an elegy with drawings of coffins. More than a dozen took off their shirts or pulled down their shorts to reveal wounds from beatings and gunfire. Many said bullets still were lodged inside their bodies.
Richard Similien, a 33-year-old inmate, says he was forced to cart bodies from the Titanic to another part of the prison in wheelbarrows normally used to transport cauldrons of food.
Penitentiary Warden Sony Marcellus dismissed the prisoners’ accusations as lies and exaggerations.
“The prisoners will never tell the truth,” said Marcellus, adding that guards “are trained to shoot in the air, not at prisoners. They would never fire on prisoners in this way.”
Marcellus pointed to an affidavit signed by a justice of the peace who said he had seen only seven bodies at the penitentiary on the night of the riot.
But prisoners are not the only ones making allegations of a massacre. The Lawyers’ Committee for the Respect of Individual Liberties, a group that was a loud critic of Aristide’s government for rights abuses, and human rights lawyer Mario Joseph say the official death tally is too low.
An ambulance driver who requested his name not be published said he transported more than 30 bodies in a Toyota Land Cruiser from the penitentiary to a dump site outside the city. He said he would not show a reporter the site for fear of his life.
People who live and work in the streets that surround the penitentiary said that on the night of the riot, they heard heavy, continuous gunfire, which lasted from two to three hours. A neighbor and a reporter at a nearby radio station, both with views of a catwalk that runs along the prison’s outer walls, said they saw black-clad police officers with machine guns firing down into the penitentiary and at prisoners’ cells.
Meanwhile, chief prosecutor Audain said he has ordered an investigation of the riot, and penitentiary authorities are still refusing visits from journalists, human rights observers, lawyers and family members.
Dozens of women waiting outside the prison one day last month said they had not seen their husbands and sons since the riot took place. Some have received written messages or assurances from the guards that their relatives are safe, but many are left to guess.
“I have my son inside, Yonel Pierre,” said a frail, white-haired woman as she waited in line to drop off a portion of rice and beans. “Since Dec. 1, I’ve brought food for my son, but I haven’t received any news from him. Before, I used to receive the dirty dishes, but now I don’t get anything.”
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