Haiti’s imprisoned ex-prime minister Yvon Neptune has grown weak during a hunger strike protesting his legal limbo of nearly a year.
BY JANE REGAN AND JOE MOZINGO
PORT-AU-PRINCE – On his 23rd day of a jailhouse hunger strike, former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune is reported to have grown so weak that he cannot walk and slips in and out of consciousness, raising fears that he will die before he escapes the legal limbo of the past 11 months.
Neptune, who served under ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was arrested June 27 on allegations that he directed a massacre of political opponents in the port town of St. Marc in the panicky final weeks of Aristide’s rule.
Aristide supporters deny a massacre occurred and say the killings — at least two dozen, according to human rights observers — resulted from fighting between police and armed groups intent on toppling the government.
They have helped Neptune turn his prolonged imprisonment into a cause c�lbre, using it to challenge the legitimacy of the new interim government and call for Aristide’s return. The hunger strike has become a high-stakes test of wills between Neptune, who is risking his life, and the Haitian government, which could lose critical support from the United States and the United Nations if he dies.
”The de facto regime wants to kill him,” said Mario Dupuy, a spokesman for Aristide’s Lavalas Family party. “There is no justice in Haiti right now. They must free Mr. Neptune and all political prisoners.”
Human rights observers have largely agreed with Neptune’s advocates. Even officials from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti — there to support the interim government — have called on authorities to give Neptune a fair trial or release him.
DEMANDS TO STAY
It is unclear exactly how ill Neptune may be. On May 2, doctors announced that he had two days to live, and U.N. officials arranged to transport him to a hospital in the Dominican Republic.
But Neptune, demanding his unconditional release, refused to leave. He remains incarcerated in a private house, used as a prison annex for high-profile inmates, in the upscale neighborhood of Pacot.
Thierry Fagart, a top U.N. human rights official, told The Herald on Tuesday that when he visited Neptune on Monday night, the prisoner was gaunt and could no longer get to his feet.
”His health situation is not good at all,” Fagart said. “He was really, really tired. He was too weak to talk.”
Supporters of Neptune say doctors have warned that his organs are deteriorating and his kidneys could fail any day.
”As of [Sunday] night, he was still lucid, still conscious most of the time,” said Brian Concannon, an American attorney with close contact to Neptune’s family. “He was drinking water. Not able to walk, though.”
Aristide, who is living in exile in South Africa, called on the world to ”mobilize” to save Neptune, according to a transcript of an interview released Tuesday.
”How long will he be able to survive, we don’t know,” Aristide told the leftist Democracy Now!, a self-proclaimed independent news organization. “That’s why we grasp this opportunity to ask everyone who can do something to not hesitate because it is a matter of life and death. We need to save his life.”
Many Lavalas supporters criticized Neptune last year when he stepped down and allowed for the transition to interim Prime Minister Gerard LaTortue. When he turned himself over to authorities in June, there was little outcry over his imprisonment.
But when Neptune and former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert, also in jail on related charges, staged a 19-day hunger strike in March, Lavalas partisans rallied for their release. Privert has also not gone to trial, as are hundreds of Haitians without the name recognition.
An Organization of American States human rights delegation last month found that of 1,054 inmates in the National Penitentiary, only nine were convicted of a crime.
The situation is not new.
”This is part of the series of chronic problems the Haitian justice system has,” said Marie Yolene Gilles, National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, a Haitian nonprofit group.
“No government has ever corrected it. Under Aristide, there were people who spent up to three years in prison before seeing a judge.”
There are two stages of being charged with a crime in Haiti, one at the time of arrest, another by a judge when the case is ready for trial. Neptune has been charged only after his arrest. He has requested different judges and asked for changes in venues.
Gilles said Neptune has been called before a judge three times, but has refused to go.
When he was taken to St. Marc to go to court on April 22 — five days into his second hunger strike — he allegedly bit a prison guard.
”He is the one who caused the delay,” Justice Minister Bernard Gousse told the Herald earlier this year.
Brian Concannon Jr.
Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti