Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Upsetting the Powers that Be

By Kate Campbell, Globe Correspondent� |� April 19, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — Tom Griffin vividly remembers the day he sat in a rural
Haitian clinic beside 10-year-old Gima and watched the boy die of
starvation. It was during the first of what would become many humanitarian
missions for Griffin, an immigration lawyer who first witnessed Haiti’s
dismal poverty on that day in 2000. ”He was so weak he couldn’t speak,”
said Griffin, 42, who was raised in the Boston area and moved recently to
Philadelphia. ”His grandmother had brought him on the back of a donkey.”

By the time Gima arrived at the clinic in mountainous Fond-des-Blancs, said
Griffin, he weighed just 30 pounds and was so far beyond help that medical
staff sought only to make him comfortable in his last days.

On a trip in November, increasingly aware of Haiti’s political chaos,
Griffin packed a borrowed digital camera. Ten days later, he returned to
Philadelphia with a collection of horrific photographs. Soon to follow was a
report documenting the violence and despair churning in the slums of one of
the world’s poorest countries.

”I’m working to upset the powers that be,” he said. ”I want to awaken all
of us complacent people who seek to avoid the gruesome inhumanity of the
world and how it always victimizes the most innocent and weakest.”

Griffin’s report — titled ”Haiti: Human Rights Investigation, November
11-21, 2004,” with photos of brutalized bodies and mutilated, abandoned
corpses — is grabbing attention. Last month he addressed diplomats at the
Canadian Parliament, officials at the Organization of American States, and
the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington.

”The United States certainly has a responsibility to stabilize Haiti,”
congresswoman Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said in a phone
interview. ”We helped destabilize it.”

Concerned by news of political prisoners and former government officials
being held without charges, Waters flew to Haiti last month to investigate.
Griffin’s report, she said, played a part in her decision to go. ”The
prisons were in deplorable condition,” she said. ”People were thrown in
jail without charges. There were filthy mattresses and many people crammed
into small cells.” Waters said the United States should call on Haiti’s
interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue, to release the political prisoners.

”People have forgotten the whole issue of Haiti,” said Larry Birns, head of
the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which monitors US-Latin American
relations. ”The Griffin report has reawakened indignation.”

Driven by faith
Griffin said his Roman Catholic faith is the engine that drives him. His
education at Boston College High School illuminated the role of service and
aimed him toward his life’s work.

”It really impressed in me to make ourselves the best so we can serve
others,” said Griffin, who earned his law degree from Suffolk University.
”If Jesus is the center of your life and you listen to his words, he’s
asking you to love so much that, to society, it becomes radical.”

”How we treat the least among us, that is how we treat God,” he said.

And it is mistreatment that Griffin has recorded.

Toward the end of his visit to Haiti, a gun battle erupted. When it ended he
went into Port-au-Prince’s Bel Air neighborhood and found 35-year-old Inep
Henri, who had been shot in the eye. Henri’s family tended to his wounds at
home rather than take him to the city hospital because, they said, police
often take shooting victims from hospitals and execute them. Griffin
persuaded the family to have Henri hospitalized. When he later found Henri
at the city hospital, he lay untreated in a crowded emergency room. Despite
Griffin’s pleas, Henri was not treated and died, Griffin said.

Griffin, a founding partner of the Philadelphia law firm Morley Surin &
Griffin, paid his own way to Haiti with the goal of writing a report the
world would read. After his return, he completed one for the University of
Miami School of Law’s Center for the Study of Human Rights. Graphic
photographs of Henri and others are included in the document, which alleges
rampant human-rights abuses and implicates the interim Haitian government.

Raymond Joseph, spokesman for the Haitian embassy in Washington, called the
report ”one-sided,” saying Griffin was a supporter of deposed president
Jean-Bertrand Aristide and ”failed to document acts of violence first
committed by pro-Aristide gangs against the police.” Griffin said that he
has ”nothing to do with Aristide” and that what he reported and
photographed speaks for itself.

Fighting for the disenfranchised is nothing new for Griffin. He was part of
a delegation that brought attention to the unsolved 2001 killing of
human-rights lawyer Digna Ochoa in Mexico.

Griffin said he also knew a great deal about Paul Farmer — the physician
and anthropologist who founded the Boston-based nonprofit Partners in
Health, which offers community-based healthcare in Haiti — and considers
him a tremendous inspiration. Griffin said he met and talked briefly with
Farmer, who has written extensively about health and human rights, when he
spoke in Boston.

‘Totally dedicated’
Griffin grew up one of five children. His parents divorced when he was a
teenager, and his mother raised the children alone. He spent 10 years as a
federal probation and parole officer in New York and Boston before becoming
a lawyer.

Retired federal probation officer George Santa Cruz said he is not surprised
by Griffin’s commitment to justice. ”He’s passionate about Haiti, the
people there, and their suffering,” said Santa Cruz, who worked with Griffin
in Boston and traveled with him to Haiti. ”He’s a brave man morally, as
well as physically, and that combination has served him well as far as what
he’s doing in Haiti.”

Griffin’s connection to Haiti and a respect for the resilience of the
families he came to know in the country’s poorest neighborhoods began with
volunteer work. In 2000, while a member of St. William’s parish in
Dorchester, Griffin first visited Haiti with the St. Boniface Haiti
Foundation. ”Tom works at great personal risk for the people who have no
voice,” said Rita Russo, vice president of programs at St. Boniface. The
Boston-based nonprofit works with US Catholic parishes to provide healthcare
for Haiti’s poor.

Griffin is ”totally dedicated not only to the Haitian cause, but to
wherever he sees injustice and a lack of human rights,” said Francois
LaTour, director of Philadelphia’s Haitian Community Center, who has worked
on immigration cases with Griffin for several years.

February marked the first anniversary of the sudden departure of Aristide,
who is in exile in South Africa. Whether he was forced out or chose to
resign remains a point of controversy.

In addition, ”the security and human-rights situations in Haiti have
seriously deteriorated since the massive prison escape of Feb. 19,” said
Ettore Di Benedetto, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group,
an independent nonprofit. ”Allegations of excessive use of force by police
and police killings, including summary executions, must be investigated,” Di
Benedetto added.

Haiti is also dealing with an AIDS crisis. ”It faces the most serious
situation outside of sub-Saharan Africa,” said Mark L. Schneider, senior
vice president of the International Crisis Group. ”The reality is that
Haiti’s health infrastructure is almost nonexistent. Its public hospital and
health clinics were weak, underfunded, and understaffed even before the
political crisis of a year ago, and they have not even begun to recover.”

Although he felt called to pursue justice for poor Haitians, he wants to
focus on his immigration work and his wife and young son, who worry about
his dangerous and time-consuming passion.

”I’d rather not be an activist on this issue,” said Griffin, sitting in his
living room in a Philadelphia suburb. ”But I guess people are listening,
and that’s all I ever wanted.”

� Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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