Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Thousands march for exiled Aristide in Haiti, Reuters July 16, 2006

Thousands march for exiled Aristide in Haiti
Sun Jul 16, 2006 12:40 AM BST

By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) – Thousands of supporters of exiled former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide took to the capital’s streets on Saturday to call for his return and demand political prisoners be freed.

The protest in Port-au-Prince, which witnesses said included about 30,000 people, was largely peaceful apart from a brief stand-off with U.N. peacekeepers and riot police.

It was held on the 53rd birthday of Aristide, who is living in South Africa. Protesters danced to drums, chanted “Aristide is king” and sang happy birthday to the exiled leader.

“We want Aristide back because he is Haitian, not South African,” said Jean Woody Pierre-Paul, a spokesman for the marchers.

The demonstrators called on newly elected President Rene Preval, a one-time ally of Aristide’s, to free all political prisoners jailed under the previous interim administration of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.

Latortue’s unelected, U.S.-backed administration took over after Aristide fled an armed revolt in 2004. Preval in February became the impoverished and unstable Caribbean country’s first elected leader since Aristide.

The crowd, mainly from the slums where Aristide and Preval drew most of their support, also called for public employees fired en masse by the Latortue government to be given back their jobs.

The United States, which exerts enormous influence in Haiti, has warned Preval that Aristide’s return would destabilise Haiti.

A champion of the country’s poor masses, the former Roman Catholic priest is deeply mistrusted by its wealthy elite and by conservatives in Washington.

The protesters almost clashed with police and U.N. peacekeepers when they were barred from approaching the presidential palace.

Most scattered when Haitian security forces pulled their guns and threatened to shoot. But several thousand protesters managed to force their way through.

“I can’t believe that under Preval the population can be barred from demonstrating in front of the presidential palace,” said Josias Mathurin, a protester. “We spent two years fighting the interim government to regain this right,” he said.

� Reuters 2006. All rights reserved

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