Boston Haitian Reporter
Brian Concannon Jr.
A year ago, the Boston Haitian Reporter invited me to write a monthly column about law and human rights in Haiti. My first piece, written in February 2004, discussed the Haitian government’s efforts to restrict demonstrations that it considered a threat to public order. At the time, there were frequent demonstrations both for and against the constitutional government, some of which led to violence and destruction of property. In response, the police started to require advance notice of demonstrations, and declared some areas off limits to protestors. Government opponents, especially, objected that the restrictions violated their rights to free speech and assembly, and the dispute looked like it was headed for the courts.
The debate over regulating demonstrations was an interesting one , because it required balancing the very important, constitutionally-protected rights of protestors with the government’s important obligation to maintain order and protect citizens from violence. A democratic government must allow its opponents to criticize it, but it must also keep traffic running, and ensure that people can go about their activities without having themselves or their cars or buildings attacked.
There is no simple rule for striking the balance between the right to protest and the necessity for public order. All democracies struggle with the balance- the Cities of Boston and New York certainly did during last summer’s Democratic and Republican Conventions, and often neither side is happy with the result. The Haitian government’s balance was far from perfect, and some parts would not have withstood court challenge. But the fact that Haiti was struggling with the same issues as mature democracies, and in the same ways (through public debate of the law, with resort to the courts), was a comforting indicator of democratic progress.
That column never saw the light of day. A week after I submitted it, and before the Reporter went to press, Haiti suffered its 33 rdcoup d’etat and the constitutional authorities were replaced by an unelected interim government. The Reporter’s pages filled with accounts of massive violence, looting, the emptying of jails and the kidnapping of a President. There was no room for legal issues, no matter how interesting.
There was also no longer any need to discuss balancing citizens’ rights with government privileges. When the interim government does not like a protest, it does not issue regulations and wait for a public debate, it arrests the organizers beforehand and shoots the demonstrators who show up anyway. On February 28 of this year, thousands of people marched peacefully in downtown Port-au-Prince to demand a return to democracy. Despite the absence of provocation and the presence of the UN troops, several journalists and human rights activists, the police opened fire on the crowd, killing at least one person and wounding several others.
Nor are disputes about demonstrations likely to end up in court. Most people arrested for criticizing the government are not allowed near a judge. If they do get to court, and convince a judge that their detention is unjustified, the government often ignores the liberation order. Jean-Marie Samedi, a grassroots pro-democracy activist from Port-au-Prince, was arrested in October for planning a September, 30 demonstration. On November 22, a judge found his detention illegal and arbitrary, and ordered him freed. The government never allowed him out.
A judge armed with a pen and the Constitution was not enough to free Jean-Marie Samedi, but six men with guns were able to liberate Jean-Marie and over 400 other prisoners. They attacked the National Penitentiary on Saturday, February 19, and no one- not the prison guards, not the police from the station a few blocks away- offered any resistance to the attackers or to the fleeing prisoners.
This escape- some call it the Immaculate Evasion- was only the latest in a long series of severe problems in Haiti’s prisons. Before the breakout the prisons held hundreds of political prisoners, and 95% of all prisoners had not been convicted of anything. Prison conditions are deplorable enough that the UN official in charge of fixing them quit, and his successor warned of an explosion. The December 1 massacre, in which dozens of men may have been executed, has never been explained, and the government has blocked independent investigations.
Justice Minister Bernard Gousse responded to the crisis in his prison system by attacking Visitation House, a program in Delmas that houses Catholic Church groups visiting Haiti from the U.S. and runs education, healthcare and sports programs for local residents. On the Monday after the jailbreak, Minister Gousse announced in a press conference that the prison escape had been planned at Visitation House. Two days later- plenty of time for anyone who had been involved to flee- a dozen of Minister Gousse’s police, heavily armed, some masked, raided the house. No one had fled- the house’s employees were all there, along with a Bishop, a law professor and several peace activists. After a full search of the house, and two days of interrogation, the only illegality the police found was the expired permit on the guard’s .38 pistol.
The switch to regulating demonstrations with bullets rather than laws, the Immaculate Evasion and Minister Gousse’s charade of an investigation (itself an attempted evasion of the the truth about his prison system), all show how much respect for the rule of law has been lost in a year. But a most unlikely group- political prisoners who escaped the prison- are showing that not all has been lost. Former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, and former Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert called the United Nations as soon after the jailbreak as they could to turn themselves in. In the following week, several others followed their steps to the prison gates.
All these men had plenty of reasons to lose faith in justice: all were arrested or held illegally, and in inhuman conditions. Some had been beaten or otherwise mistreated, and many came close to death during the December 1 massacre. But all of them voluntarily resubmitted themselves to this illegal mistreatment, in order to uphold the principle of the law. By insisting on obeying the law no matter how much the government disregarded it, these political prisoners not only demonstrated courage, they also gave us hope of a better, more law-abiding future for Haiti.
Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org.