– By PETER PRENGAMAN and MICHAEL NORTON, Associated Press Writers
Monday, May 9, 2005
(05-09) 20:04 PDT PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) —
Haiti’s Supreme Court has overturned the convictions of 38 army and paramilitary leaders who were sentenced for their roles in a mass slaying a decade ago, human rights groups said Monday.
The men were sentenced in 2000 in connection with a 1994 raid on the seaside shantytown of Raboteau. More than half were in exile and were tried in absentia. It was not clear how many were imprisoned.
“The trial was annulled, we suppose it was on a technicality,” said Jean-Claude Bajeux from the Ecumenical Center for Human Rights. The Supreme Court has yet to make the decision available in its entirety, he said.
Pierre Esperance, director of the National Coalition of Haitian Rights, also confirmed the April 21 decision but couldn’t immediately provide more details.
The decision drew the ire of supporters of former President Jean-Bertand Aristide, who was ousted for the second time amid an armed rebellion in February last year.
The Raboteau slayings were part of a series of attacks to erode support for Aristide, a charismatic slum priest who became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in February 1991. The army ousted him in September 1991, and he returned to power through U.S. intervention in 1994.
“This shows the current government is partisan, revengeful, hateful and not serious about justice,” said Gerard Gilles, former senator in Aristide’s Lavalas Party.
Since Aristide was ousted last year, a U.S.-backed interim government has taken power as the country prepares for elections in October and November.
When contacted by The Associated Press on Monday, interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said he hadn’t heard of the Supreme Court decision but believed it was a sign of progress because it showed a separation between political leaders and judges.
“No orders were given, no instructions. If the results have been annulled, the judges have decided to annul them independently,” he said.
During the killings, witnesses said soldiers and thugs burst into dozens of homes, beating and arresting people. People who tried to flee were shot. It is not clear how many were killed, because soldiers prevented victims’ families from retrieving bodies. Witnesses said at least 15 people killed but said other victims were washed out to sea.
Brian Concannon, American lawyer who helped prepare the prosecution’s case in the 2000 trial, criticized the ruling.
“The Raboteau trial stood for the possibility of justice in Haiti … It was praised as a landmark in the fight against impunity,” he said. “The legal case for overturning the verdict was extremely weak.”
The decision likely opens the door for the release of Louis-Jodel Chamblain, one of Haiti’s most feared criminals who has twice been convicted of murder, including in connection with the 1994 slayings. Chamblain helped lead the rebellion that knocked Aristide from power last year.
Stanley Gaston, a lawyer for Chamblain, said he believed his client could be released within a week.
Michael Norton reported for this story from San Juan, Puerto Rico.