By Alva James-Johnson, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
27 June 2006
The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, the Catholic priest who five months ago left a Haitian prison for cancer treatment in South Florida, called Monday for his nation’s government to release all political prisoners.
In an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel just hours after Haitian President Rene Preval left Miami for Brussels, Jean-Juste said hundreds of supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide still remain in prison.
They include the country’s former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and other leaders of Aristide’s Lavalas Party. Most were arrested two years ago when Aristide’s government was toppled in a bloody revolt and replaced by an interim government led by Boca Raton retiree Gerard Latortue, who served as prime minister.
“Many of us Haitians here and in Haiti think the government should go faster because these people were illegally arrested, arbitrarily charged, with no case at all,” said Jean-Juste, 60, who lives in Fort Lauderdale with his sister.
Jean-Juste, whom the interim government released for medical treatment, said he was weak from chemotherapy and could not meet with Preval during his visit to South Florida. Jean-Juste said he asked for Neptune’s release in a brief telephone conversation with Preval. “He said he’s doing his best as the case is in court pending,” Jean-Juste said of Preval.
The interim Haitian government arrested Neptune and Jocelerme Privert, Aristide’s former interior minister, in 2004 for their alleged involvement in a massacre that year that left more than 50 people dead in the city of St. Marc. Earlier this month, Haitian authorities cleared Privert and released him from jail, according to a British Broadcasting Corp. report.
Jean-Juste said Neptune remains on a hunger strike and in poor health.
Latortue declined to comment. However, in a recent interview with the New York Daily News, Latortue said he was embarrassed that Neptune remains in jail.
Jean-Robert Lafortune, of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition of Miami, said the issue of political prisoners is problematic for Preval, a former Aristide prot�g� who received strong support from the former president’s supporters. “His leadership is going to be based on his ability to deal with political prisoners in Haiti because this is going to decide whether or not he’s going to maintain the support of the Aristide supporters,” Lafortune said.
Preval, elected in February, also is going to be tested on the issue of Aristide’s return, Lafortune said.
A year ago, Haitian authorities arrested Jean-Juste, suspecting his involvement in the murder of prominent journalist and poet Jacques Roche.
Jean-Juste’s imprisonment, his second under the interim government, was condemned by humanitarian organizations, members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and activists around the world.
A judge cleared Jean-Juste of homicide, but he was indicted on weapons possession and criminal conspiracy charges, which he denies.
These days, Jean-Juste spends his days worrying about the imprisoned comrades he left behind. “That is killing me,” he said. “I talk to them. I send help to them, and I’m trying to do my best for them.”