Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti’s ‘huge step forward’ pushed back

Toronto Star Copyright 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers
Limited, All Rights Reserved. May 14, 2005

Haiti’s ‘huge step forward’ pushed back; Court quashes
milestone massacre convictions Ruling wipes out
historic human rights victory

Reed Lindsay

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti� Special to the Star News

In a nation where state-sponsored massacres are as
common as the impunity granted to their perpetrators,
the Raboteau trial shone as a beacon of long-denied
justice.

In November 2000, a Haitian jury convicted 16 former
soldiers and paramilitaries for their participation in
a 1994 bloody rampage through a seaside slum called
Raboteau that left at least eight people dead. A week
later, a court convicted 37 more defendants in
absentia.

The trial was praised by the United Nations as “a huge
step forward” and hailed by international jurists as a
milestone human rights case.

Last week, the convictions of at least 15 of the
Raboteau defendants were overturned in one fell swoop
by Haiti’s Supreme Court in a murky ruling that
represents the latest in a series of human rights
scandals since interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue
assumed office 14 months ago.

“Raboteau was perhaps the only time (in Haiti) that
justice was achieved after a massacre, and in a
scrupulously fair trial,” said Reed Brody of Human
Rights Watch. “To overturn that verdict is to say that
the only justice possible in Haiti is the justice of
those with guns. It’s a sad day.”

Legal experts say the Supreme Court’s decision, which
stated that the case should not have been tried by a
jury, was based on a technicality.

According to Mario Joseph, a human rights lawyer who
represented the victims of the Raboteau killings, the
Supreme Court already approved the jury trial a year
before it began.

“This verdict is purely political,” said Joseph. “With
this decision in the Raboteau case, the justice system
cannot go any lower… They are releasing criminals
and arresting innocents.”

The Latortue administration has denied exerting any
influence over the court in its decision, responding
to criticism that the government has made a habit of
trampling judicial independence. Last December,
Justice Minister Bernard Gousse removed two prominent
judges’ caseloads after they had ordered the release
of prisoners who were political opponents of the
government.

The Supreme Court’s decision comes nine months after
paramilitary leader Louis-Jodel Chamblain was
acquitted for the 1993 murder of pro-democracy
activist Antoine Izmery in an overnight trial that
Amnesty International condemned as “a very sad record
in the history of Haiti.”

Chamblain has remained in prison awaiting a retrial of
the Raboteau massacre, a right he is granted under
Haitian law because he had been convicted in absentia.
It was not clear whether the recent Supreme Court
ruling would lead to the release of Chamblain, who was
second-in-command of a murderous paramilitary group
called FRAPH that was allied with the military regime.

The annulment of the convictions itself appeared to
apply only to those convicted at the jury trial, and
not to Chamblain and other self-exiled defendants
convicted in absentia, such as paramilitary leader
Emmanuel Constant, and the three top leaders of the
military dictatorship, Raoul Cedras, Philippe Biamby
and Michel Francois.

Latortue owes his mandate in part to Chamblain, who
helped lead a revolt of former soldiers and gangs that
ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February
2004. During the revolt, all those imprisoned for the
Raboteau massacre were broken out of jail. After
taking power, Latortue hailed them as “freedom
fighters” in a speech in Gonaives, the city where
Raboteau is located and the site of the trial.

None of the Raboteau convicts has been recaptured by
the U.S.-backed government of Latortue, which has
begun paying compensation packages to thousands of
former soldiers despite warnings from experts that
doing so would undermine a U.N.-led disarmament
program.

Under Latortue, the Haitian government has been
accused of waging a campaign of repression against
Aristide supporters that has included arbitrary
arrests, illegal detentions, summary executions and
bloody crackdowns of peaceful demonstrations. Earlier
this month, U.N. official Thierry Fagart criticized
the government for keeping Aristide ally and former
prime minister Yvon Neptune imprisoned for more than
10 months without seeing a judge. Neptune has been on
a hunger strike for nearly a month and is reported to
be in grave condition.

Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has been surrounded by
human rights scandals since he assumed office.

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