PRIEST CALLED `A PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE’
Human rights advocates and U.S. officials are demanding the release of former Miamian Gérard Jean-Juste from a Haitian jail.
Former Miami activist Gérard Jean-Juste has become the focus of a strong letter-writing campaign urging his release from a Haitian jail and calling him a political prisoner.
A Catholic priest who led the most powerful Haitian rights group in the country, Jean-Juste was arrested last month for investigation in the murder of a journalist, but no formal charges have been filed.
He has been one of the staunchest critics of Haiti’s U.S.-backed interim government, accusing authorities of human rights abuses against supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Washington of racist policies.
Aristide’s supporters allege that more than 700 of their brethren have been jailed for political reasons. They include former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Annette Auguste, a 70-year-old Haitian grandmother and popular singer known as Só Ann.
Twenty-nine members of the U.S. Congress plus thousands of supporters from 42 countries and 10 U.S. states have sent letters to the U.S. and Haitian governments demanding his release from a Port-au-Prince jail.
‘TRUMPED UP’ CHARGES
Amnesty International has said the charges against Jean-Juste are ”trumped up” and it has called him a ”prisoner of conscience,” a classification usually reserved for the victims of the worst abuses.
”Father Jean-Juste is an advocate for human rights in Haiti, and his arrest is part of a long-standing attempt to silence him for his criticism of the Haitian government,” said Archi Pyati of Human Rights First, a lawyers advocacy group based in New York. The group’s campaign triggered 1,351 letters to the Haitian government, Pyati said.
In Miami, where Jean-Juste’s supporters have held a candlelit prayer vigil in Little Haiti and protests outside the Haitian consulate, many Haitians remember him as head of the now defunct Haitian Refugee Center, which helped thousands of Haitians obtain legal residency status. Jean-Juste served as director of the center from the early 1980s until 1991, when he resigned to move back to Haiti to work for the Aristide government.
He remains one of the few Haitian leaders who can draw a crowd in Little Haiti, and hundreds of Haitians clamored to touch his face at a rally he appeared at in December, just days after he was released from his first stay in a Haitian jail.
”I know that Father Jean-Juste is being persecuted for what I don’t know,” said Farah Juste, a Miami community activist. “He’s fighting for the cause of the masses”
In a letter dictated from jail to his U.S. lawyer, a defiant Jean-Juste said he had collapsed from unknown causes on Sunday but pressed his demands:
`JOINING MY VOICE’
”Regardless of all the hardship, I am still joining my voice to the voices of all democracy lovers to demand the return of constitutional order in Haiti, the physical return of our elected president Aristide, release of all political prisoners, respect of all human rights,” he wrote.
But while Jean-Juste’s demands for the return of Aristide may have ruffled the Haitian government’s feathers, supporters say he has become even more of a problem amid increasing talk that he might run for the presidency in elections scheduled for Nov. 6.
”They do not want him out [of jail] because he could potentially register as a candidate for president and easily win if he has the support of Aristide,” said Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer who has known Jean-Juste for 27 years and worked for the Aristide government.
Jean-Juste has denied any interest in being a candidate, saying he wants to maintain his devotion to his church and to Haiti’s poor. Aristide also was a Catholic priest, but left his order to pursue politics.
Jean-Juste was arrested July 21 after a mob attacked him during the funeral of Jacques Roche, a journalist who was kidnapped and murdered.
The priest said he went to the funeral to show his respect and that he and Roche were related.
But the mob, which accused Aristide supporters of killing Roche, chased and threatened Jean-Juste.
”They don’t have anything as evidence or a charge,” said his Port-au-Prince attorney, Mario Joseph. He filed a motion seeking Jean-Juste’s release while the investigation is completed, but the judge has not yet replied.
Jean-Juste was first arrested by the post-Aristide government in October for suspicion of inciting violence and hiding pro-Aristide gunmen. He spent 48 days in jail but was not charged.
QUESTIONED BY POLICE
The week before his latest arrest, police stopped and questioned him for several hours after he arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport on a flight from Miami. Days earlier, Aristide critics had accused Jean-Juste of handling some of the former president’s money.
Supporters credit his aggressive activism with halting U.S. government attempts to deport Haitians who had illegally migrated to South Florida.
”He’s responsible for [ Miami] having a Haitian community,” Kurzban said. “It was through his leadership and his creation of the Haitian Refugee Center and working with us on the legal work and organizing people politically that [he] stopped the deportations. It was the initiation and the creation of the Haitian community here.”