Former Haiti Prime Minister Yvon Neptune has aided American interests, but the U.S. has done little to help free him.
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published May 7, 2005
MIAMI – His friends say he is a stubborn man capable of starving himself to death.
Now, 20 days into a hunger strike, the fate of Haiti’s jailed former prime minister, Yvon Neptune, is rapidly turning into an international dilemma.
Neptune, 58, stopped eating April 17 to protest his incarceration in a Haitian jail for more than 10 months without a court hearing. Haiti’s constitution requires a hearing before a judge within 48 hours of arrest.
The detention of Neptune, once the loyal, right-hand man of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has become the rallying cry of opponents of Haiti’s year-old interim government. Were he to die in custody, it would be a major embarrassment to U.S. and U.N. officials who helped engineer Aristide’s resignation.
Neptune is accused of masterminding a massacre on Feb. 11, 2004, in the village of La Scierie, on the outskirts of the coastal city of St. Marc. Experts who have investigated the case say the evidence is unclear. The country was in the midst of an armed uprising that led to Aristide’s fall later that month. Armed pro- and anti-Aristide groups had been sparring for weeks. As prime minister, Neptune visited the city two days before a killing rampage by a pro-Aristide gang. But the government has presented no evidence that Neptune ordered the attack.
Neptune’s lawyer, Mario Joseph, says his client is being persecuted by political enemies out for vengeance. “There is no legal explanation for Neptune’s prolonged detention. The only explanation is that the government wants to keep its political enemy in prison as long as possible,” he said. Justice Minister Bernard Gousse denies political interference, saying any legal violations are the fault of the judicial system, not the government.
The United States finds itself especially torn. Neptune earned the respect and trust of several senior U.S. officials, who privately credit him with providing vital cooperation in the capture of an elusive Haitian drug trafficker; he also provided vital cooperation during the tricky transition of power in the hours after Aristide fled the country into exile.
Even so, Washington has stayed silent over the government’s treatment of Neptune, not wanting to be seen interfering in a domestic legal matter.
“It’s really obnoxious what’s going on with Neptune,” said Robert Maguire, a leading Haiti scholar at Trinity University in Washington, D.C. “Washington is just holding its nose until a new government is elected later this year.”
Friends and colleagues of Neptune say it’s time someone spoke up for him.
“The world should know how crucial his role was in the fight against drugs in Haiti,” said Jean-Max Bellerive, Neptune’s former private secretary. “His position after the departure of Aristide also saved thousands of lives.”
Aristide had refused to crack down on drug trafficking within the national police and presidential security apparatus. Behind Aristide’s back, U.S. officials say, Neptune helped snare one of the principal traffickers, Jacques Ketant.
Now serving a 27-year sentence in Miami, Ketant was indicted in 1997 on charges of smuggling 40 tons of cocaine from Haiti to Miami. He was suspected of corrupting a number of high-ranking Haitian security officials in the Aristide government. He enjoyed a life of luxury, tooling around Haiti in a Hummer and throwing big parties. U.S. drug enforcement agents despaired of ever laying hands on him.
U.S. concern about Ketant was elevated to new heights in the summer of 2003, after his bodyguards attacked a staff member at an elite Port-au-Prince private school attended by children of U.S. diplomats.
The U.S. Embassy reached out to Neptune, who quietly agreed to lay a trap, according to Haitian and U.S. officials. Neptune provided DEA agents with a small, trusted team of Haiti police agents. Ketant was lured to a phony meeting with Aristide; DEA agents seized him and bundled him onto a waiting plane.
U.S. officials also say Neptune played a vital role on the morning of Feb. 29, 2004, after Aristide’s flight into exile.
Again, U.S. officials say they reached out to Neptune. Concerned about maintaining the semblance of constitutional order, Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Neptune shortly after Aristide’s departure to request his help in swearing in a new president. With armed rebels about to descend on the capital, U.S. officials were worried about a potential bloodbath.
Neptune had spent the previous evening in Aristide’s private residence, as the president and his wife packed their bags. He was upset over the secretive manner in which Aristide chose to leave the country, without informing his Cabinet until the last minute. When Aristide offered Neptune a seat on the plane, the prime minister refused.
Hours later Neptune appeared in the office of the prime minister alongside Supreme Court magistrate Boniface Alexandre, to announce Aristide’s resignation and introduce Haiti’s new president.
After Neptune’s arrest last June, U.S. Ambassador James Foley publicly expressed his respect for the “crucial and courageous role” Neptune played in ensuring a smooth succession after Aristide’s departure. He said the new Haitian authorities would have to prove Neptune’s direct involvement in the massacre.
U.N. officials have publicly criticized the handling of the case. Last week the chief of the U.N. human rights office in Haiti, French lawyer Thierry Fagart, told journalists that Neptune’s “fundamental rights” had not been respected. He said under the interim government more than 95 percent of detainees in Haitian jails had not been charged.
Last weekend, concern for Neptune’s health prompted the Haitian government to accept a U.N. proposal to fly him to the Dominican Republic for treatment. Neptune said no, insisting on his unconditional release.
For two weeks, he had taken no food or water. But under pressure from his family and doctors, he relented last weekend and began accepting water.
An earlier hunger strike this year was interrupted when Neptune was hospitalized. The government transferred him to a private government house, where he remains under house arrest.
Relatives who saw him Thursday said Neptune was weak and barely able to speak, and Bellerive worries that time is running out. “I don’t think that he could last long if he still refuses to receive medical support or alimentation.”
David Adams can be contacted at email@example.com
[Last modified May 7, 2005, 01:03:04]