By BRIAN CONCANNON, Jr.
In February 2004, I wrote an article about the controversy sparked by the Haitian government’s efforts to reign in unruly protestors. A series of demonstrations, both for and against the constitutional government, had degenerated into low-level violence and destruction of property. In response, the Prime Minister, Yvon Neptune, announced that demonstrators would need to provide advanced notice, and declared some areas off limits to protests. 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 business without having themselves or their cars or buildings attacked.
The mere fact that Haiti was having such a debate was cause for celebration. All democracies struggle to strike a balance between the respective rights of police and protestors- the Cities of Boston and New York certainly did during last summer’s Democratic and Republican Conventions. Although the Haitian government’s balance was far from perfect- some parts would not have withstood court challenge- 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), showed how far the country had come in nine years of democratic governments.
Three days before I submitted the article, Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed that President Aristide was “the free and fairly elected President of Haiti,” and that the U.S. would not help him be “forced out of office by thugs who do not respect the law and are bringing terrible violence to the Haitian people.” A week afterwards, Powell declared that it was time for Aristide to go. Haiti’s free and fairly elected President was forced onto a State Department jet and replaced by thugs who did not respect the law and who brought more terrible violence to the Haitian people.
My article, of course, never saw the light of day. Haiti coverage for the next several weeks meant accounts of massive violence, looting, the emptying of jails and the kidnapping of a President. A year later, there is still no need to discuss balancing citizens’ rights with the government’s privileges, because the U.S.-installed interim government feels no need to strike such a balance. When the authorities do not like a protest, they do not issue regulations and wait for a public debate, they arrest the organizers beforehand and shoot 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 three demonstrators and wounding several others. This time the government was caught: the international media reported the attack, the UN condemned it. But the police had done the same thing several times before, notably on September 30, 2004, when a deadly attack against a peaceful demonstration inaugurated a months’ long wave of attacks on poor neighborhoods, the strongholds of the democracy movement.
The UN troops, embarrassed by the killing on their watch, protected demonstrations from police for most of March. On March 29, the anniversary of Haiti’s Constitution, they reverted to form and actually helped the Haitian police stop a legal demonstration. Although the Constitution grants the right to demonstrate if the authorities are notified, the UN blocked off an entire neighborhood to keep demonstrators from the downtown area because the police had not given authorization, which is not required by any Haitian law. Protest organizers had notified the police, and even met with UN officials several times to plan the route and ensure security.
The UN was following precedent, in a sense: after a demonstration was announced for May 18, 2004, the U.S. Marines then running Haiti illegally arrested demonstration organizer Annette Auguste, a.k.a. “So Ann,” on the grounds that the grandmother and folksinger was a threat to the U.S. troops. Eleven months later, Auguste is still behind bars, despite an absence of proof or judicial proceedings. When the May 18 demonstration happened anyway, U.S. soldiers broke it up. The Marines claimed that the Haitian police had told them the organizers had not provided the required notification. But the organizers had talked about their plans publicly for several days before the event, and mentioned in several press conferences that they had notified the police. A few days later the police admitted they had the notification letter, claiming it had been misplaced.
Disputes about demonstrations against the Interim Government are unlikely 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. That explosion came a few days later, on December 1, as Secretary Powell was visiting the nearby National Palace. The police responded to a non-violent prison protest with automatic weapons, killing dozens.
Justice Minister Bernard Gousse, who worked for a U.S. funded program before the coup d’etat, responded to the crisis in his prison system by attacking Visitation House, a program that houses Catholic Church groups visiting Haiti from the U.S. and runs education, healthcare and sports programs. On the Monday after the jailbreak, Minister Gousse announced that the prison escape had been planned at Visitation House. Two days later- plenty of time for anyone who had really been involved to flee- a dozen of Minister Gousse’s police, most toting assault rifles, some wearing masks, 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. A full search of the house and two days of interrogation unearthed little more than the expired permit on the guard’s .38 pistol.
The switch to regulating demonstrations with bullets and nightsticks rather than laws, the Immaculate Evasion and Minister Gousse’s charade of an investigation (itself an attempted evasion of the truth about his prison system), all show how much respect for the rule of law in Haiti 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 had come 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.