Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Escape Attempt Led to Killings of Unarmed Inmates (The New York Times)

By Deborah Sontag and Walt Bogdanich, The New York Times

LES CAYES, Haiti — When the earth shook violently on Jan. 12, the inmates in this southern city’s squalid prison clamored to be released, screaming: “Help! We’re going to die in here.”

Elsewhere in Haiti, inmates were fleeing largely undeterred. But here, where the prison itself sustained little damage, there was no exit. Instead, conditions worsened for the inmates, three-quarters of them pretrial detainees, arrested on charges as petty as loitering and locked up indefinitely alongside convicted felons.

After the earthquake, guards roughed up the noisiest inmates and consolidated them into cells so crowded their limbs tangled, former prisoners said. With aftershocks jangling nerves, the inmates slept in shifts on the ground, used buckets for toilets and plotted their escape.

The escape plan, set in motion on Jan. 19 by an attack on a guard, proved disastrous. With Haitian and United Nations police officers encircling the prison, the detainees could not get out. For hours, they rampaged, hacking up doors and burning records, until tear gas finally overwhelmed them.

In the end, after the Haitian police stormed the compound, dozens of inmates lay dead and wounded, their bodies strewn through the courtyard and crumpled inside cells. The prison smoldered, a blood-splattered mess.

Haitian officials here say they did not use lethal force but rather found lifeless bodies when they entered the prison. They attribute the killings to a prison ringleader who, they say, slaughtered his fellow inmates before hopping over the wall and disappearing.

But an investigation by The New York Times casts doubt on the official version of events and instead indicates that Haitian authorities shot unarmed prisoners and then sought to cover it up. Many of the bodies were buried in an unmarked grave.

Kesnel Jeudi, a recently released inmate, said in an interview that nobody was dead when the police rushed the prison. “They shouted: ‘Prisoners, lie down. Lie down. Lie down,’ ” he said. “When the prisoners lay down — while the prisoners were lying down — they began firing.”

Mr. Jeudi, 28, said the police shootings involved some settling of scores: “There were people they selected to kill.”

Four months later, the death toll remains unknown. But most accounts place it between 12 and 19, with up to 40 wounded. The local morgue attendant, Georges Raymond, said that he initially registered 11 dead detainees, with several more arriving later after they died of bullet wounds at the adjacent hospital.

Prison officials would not allow The Times to enter the walled prison compound, which sits directly behind the police station in the heart of town. But reporters interviewed six witnesses to the disturbance as well as five others who visited the prison either immediately after the shootings or the next day. None saw inmates firing weapons or any evidence that inmates killed inmates. Instead, witnesses said the police shot unarmed prisoners, some in the prison yard, others in their cells. Afterward, the authorities failed to notify inmates’ relatives of the deaths, buried bodies without conducting autopsies and burned the surviving prisoners’ bloodstained clothing and shoes.

Myrtil Yonel, a human rights leader here, said, “For us, we consider this to be a massacre.”

Under a bare bulb in his office beside the prison, Olritch Beaubrun, the superintendent of the antiriot police unit, scoffed at this accusation. He said that a detainee nicknamed Ti Mousson had slaughtered inmates who resisted his escape plan.

“Ti Mousson put down the 12 detainees,” Superintendent Beaubrun said. “We did not. We never fired our guns.”

This assertion is at odds with what The Times found after reviewing confidential Haitian and United Nations reports and conducting interviews with former detainees, guards, prison cooks, wardens, police officials, judicial officials and relatives of dead prisoners.

Among other things, United Nations police officers noted that day in an internal incident report that the Haitian police had used firearms. The cooks, three women trapped inside during the riot, said that the detainees did no shooting. No weapons were recovered. Ti Mousson — whose real name is Luguens Cazeau — escaped. And the authorities did not treat the prison as the crime scene of what they portrayed as a mass murder by Mr. Cazeau, who was awaiting trial on charges of stealing a satellite dish.

The Haitian government said that it was conducting three separate investigations into the episode. But witnesses and others interviewed by The Times during two visits here last month said that they had never spoken to investigators. The inmates’ bodies had not been exhumed, and there was no indication that basic forensic evidence had ever been collected.

The detainees’ relatives say they feel not only bereft but also abandoned. During an interview, the widow of Abner Lisius — arrested on suspicions of stealing a cellphone, now dead at 45 — wiped away tears. “My husband was murdered by the authorities,” said Marie Michel Laurencin, the widow.

For four months, American and United Nations officials have made no public comments about the killings at Les Cayes, saying they were urging the Haitians to handle the matter themselves. But after The Times repeatedly raised questions about the case with American officials, the United States Embassy sent a human rights officer to Les Cayes.

The United Nations mission chief in Haiti, Edmond Mulet, has now ordered the United Nations police commissioner here to begin an independent inquiry.

Last week, the United Nations spokesman in Haiti, David Wimhurst, expressed frustration with the Haitian investigations to date, saying that “incomplete and inaccurate” official statements about what happened in Les Cayes suggested a possible cover-up.

“We’ve waited and waited for the government to do its thing and now we’re going to do our thing,” Mr. Wimhurst said. “It’s a delicate political business being in Haiti and supporting the government. We’re not here to undermine them, but nor are we here to turn a blind eye to gross human rights violations.”

A Fragile Justice System

How Haiti now deals with the killings in Les Cayes offers a test case for this country’s commitment to human rights at a time when the world is poised to help rebuild its troubled justice system after the earthquake. The State Department and the Agency for International Development have requested $141.3 million for that purpose.

For 15 years, on and off, the international community has invested in Haiti’s police, courts and prisons as a way to shore up its fragile democracy. The effort began in late 1994 when the Haitian Army, long an instrument of political terror, was disbanded.

“After many years of dictatorship, there was no independent police force and no independent judiciary, and the prisons were hellholes,” said William G. O’Neill, director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council. “The goal was to create institutions that would respect human rights and allow the rule of law to flourish.”

But to date the international investment, focused on police and judicial training in an official culture rife with corruption and cronyism, has netted modest returns. Haiti’s corrections system has made few gains.

Before the earthquake, the country’s 17 prisons “fell far short of international standards,” the Haitian government acknowledged in a post-disaster needs assessment. Prisons were dilapidated and severely overcrowded; guards, far fewer than needed, were poorly equipped. And — the persistent core problem — most detainees were held in prolonged pretrial detention, often for minor crimes or for things like commercial debt, witchcraft and werewolfery.

“Understand, you can be arrested in Haiti for practically nothing,” said Maurice D. Geiger, an American contractor working on justice reform in Haiti. “And once you are arrested and go to prison, it is not only possible but likely that you will stay there for an extended period of time without seeing a judge.”

Prisons were widely viewed as “powder kegs awaiting a spark,” as a 2007 report by the International Crisis Group put it. And the earthquake provided it.

On Jan. 12, the largest prison in the country, the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, emptied completely not long after a section of its surrounding wall collapsed. Guards fled along with inmates, including a few hundred prisoners considered a serious risk to the country’s security.

Looking back, police officials said they should have anticipated a “contagion” of escape attempts at other prisons after that.

Panic After a Quake

In Les Cayes, Haiti’s third largest city, the earthquake was far less destructive than in Port-au-Prince. But the earth did shake, violently and laterally. And, although children at an orphanage in the city marveled at how the trees danced, adults panicked, dashing into the streets, screaming, crying.

Inside the prison complex, where corroding concrete cellblocks frame a desolate courtyard, inmates hollered, trying to wrench open the doors to their cells.

Built in the 19th century, the prison held 467 detainees in 14 cells that day, more than four times its intended capacity. The ruckus was ear-splitting. When the inmates did not quiet down, Pierre Eddy Charlot, the supervisor, called in reinforcements from the adjacent police station and the United Nations police unit stationed in town.

“Measures were taken to prevent the worst,” Mr. Charlot scribbled in a memo that night.

According to prisoners released after the disturbance, those measures included an effort to silence forcibly the troublemakers. Mr. Jeudi said he watched the guards remove the noisiest detainees from their cells, beat them with batons and then cram them into a few particularly crowded units. Twice-a-day bathroom privileges were eliminated.

Tensions escalated. “The prisoners were riled up,” said one former detainee, recently released. The young man spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. “When they beat us, we said, ‘Damn,’ ” he said. “Now, you know prisoners. We tried to make a plan to get out.”

Cell 3 was planning central, home to Mr. Cazeau, or Ti Mousson, who had been roughed up by a guard after the quake, according to former detainees. The inmates in that cell got busy, digging holes in the walls, sharpening a toothbrush to a fine point.

Their plotting was no secret. “There was a guy in Cell 3, a former police officer,” Mr. Jeudi said. “Two days before the prison fell apart, he was in the cell when Ti Mousson counted who was with him and who was not. So that guy asked for the warden and informed on what the prisoners were planning. And the warden did nothing.”

After the earthquake, the warden, Inspector Sylvestre Larack, put out a “maximum alert” calling his 29 guards back to duty. But on Jan. 19, with much of Les Cayes still in a post-quake state of emergency, only five guards showed up to work inside the prison.

In the early afternoon, when the cells were to be opened for the dumping of the waste buckets, Inspector Larack left to put gas in his car, said Mr. Yonel, the southern regional director of Haiti’s Network for the Defense of Human Rights. Given the long lines at the service stations, this was bound to take time.

For the escape planners, “the stars had aligned,” Mr. Yonel said.

A Cell Erupts

Thélèmaque Guerson, the guard with the keys, found nothing out of the ordinary when he unlocked Cell 1 and then Cell 2.

When he opened Cell 3, however, dozens of detainees “formed a coalition and pushed out together at the same time,” he said in an interview. They threw a bucket of urine at him and pounced, fists first. Mr. Cazeau grabbed him by the chest, saying, “Give me the prison keys.” Mr. Guerson, 28, said he threw the keys in the hopes that the other guards would retrieve them.

The other guards, however, “must have been distracted,” said an internal United Nations report. That report said it was a United Nations police officer patrolling the prison roof who first spied the detainees attacking Mr. Guerson.

Mr. Guerson said he struggled, but, outnumbered, could not stand his ground. He was stabbed in the head and neck with the sharpened toothbrush. Finally, he managed to extricate himself and ran out the front gate. All the other guards fled, too, and they did not lock the door after themselves.

The inmates controlled the prison.

Key ring in hand, Mr. Cazeau opened cell after cell. Inmates poured into the yard. Some rushed the front door. But by this point, United Nations officers and soldiers, who had formed a perimeter around the compound, blocked the entrance, pointing their guns. Detainees withdrew back inside, where they easily found the tools to vent their frustrations, like propane tanks to set fires and pickaxes to chop up the doors.

Although prisons are not supposed to keep firearms, and especially not unsecured firearms, the inmates also found a couple of old guns in the clerk’s office, according to some accounts. Mr. Guerson and the former detainees said they thought the guns either did not work or did not have ammunition.

The police station stands directly in front of the prison. Superintendent Beaubrun, who runs the Departmental Unit for the Maintenance of Order, said that he was sitting out front under a tamarind tree when he heard a blast — “Boom!” Running toward the noise — its origin unclear — he saw Mr. Guerson dash out, his head bleeding.

Still, Superintendent Beaubrun said, the police could not intervene without orders from his superior, whom he said he had difficulty reaching by cellphone.

So while the inmates ransacked the prison, the guards were outside, the police were outside and the United Nations officers were outside, too. “We spent three hours discussing what to do,” Superintendent Beaubrun said.

Handling a riot is a delicate affair for prison officials. International standards encourage the use of mediation and nonlethal restraint; law enforcement officers are supposed to use lethal force only after all other means have been exhausted. Haitian officials ordered the United Nations officers, who were better equipped, to enter the prison and open fire on the prisoners, according to the United Nations report. The United Nations officers, most from a Senegalese police unit, vehemently refused.

“It was not right!” Abdou Mbengue, the reporting officer for the Senegalese, said at his office here last month. His commander, Lt. Col. Ababacar Sadikh Niang, said that they were not authorized to discuss the matter but added, emphatically, “It must be said that the Senegalese did not fire a single shot.”

Haitian officials blamed the United Nations officers’ “indifference” for allowing the situation to escalate.

Officer Mbengue, in turn, in a report that he wrote the night of the shootings, deplored “the amateurism, the lack of seriousness and the irresponsibility of the Haitian National Police officers.” The senior police official in the region — Superintendent Beaubrun’s boss — did not arrive on the scene for more than an hour, he wrote.

With night falling, Superintendent Beaubrun said, the police grew concerned about three female prison cooks who they believed had been taken hostage inside the prison. “They were screaming: ‘Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me,’ ” he said.

The three women, interviewed while cooking outside the prison last month, said they never feared that the detainees would kill them. They said that some detainees considered using them “as a shield” if the police came in but that others did not permit that. Generally, the detainees were protective of them and did not threaten or harm them, the cooks said.

“Because we used to take good care of the detainees, maybe that’s why they did not try to hurt us,” said one, Marie Florence Degan, as she tended a huge metal kettle of rice and beans over a wood fire.

Around 5 p.m., Haitian police officials decided to enter the prison compound. They used tear gas first, hurling 30 grenades that had been given to them by the Senegalese officers.

“A lot of gas,” Mr. Jeudi said. “Myself, personally, I took a T-shirt, wrapped it around my nose and put toothpaste around my mouth” to combat the effects. “I was crying.”

Detainees ran into the infirmary and hid in cells. Some escaped, climbing up and over the walls or through holes they had dug. Mr. Cazeau, the ringleader, fled in plain view, using a prison ladder, according to a report by Mr. Yonel’s human rights group.

The Police Take Over

By the time the police penetrated the northern wall to enter the prison, the detainees had been overcome by the gas and were breathing hard, former detainees said.

The prison warden’s report said the police, accompanied by guards, were greeted by “a hailstorm of rocks and ammunition coming from the detainees.”

The cooks said the detainees never fired a shot. “No detainees did any shooting,” one of the cooks, Charita Milien, said. No officers were killed, and none were wounded by gunfire, according to police reports.

On entering, the warden’s report said, officers found on the ground “detainees who had been executed by the leaders of the movement for refusing to cooperate.”

But two cooks said that they saw no dead detainees on the ground at the moment the police arrived. And, like other detainees interviewed, Mr. Jeudi said, “No one was killed before the police entered the prison.”

Superintendent Beaubrun said that the detainees’ account could not be trusted. “The detainees were arrested by us,” he said. “They will never say good things about us. Escape is good for them. If you prevent them from escaping, they won’t like you.”

Mr. Jeudi and other former detainees said the police entered firing. “When they started to shoot, people were screaming and crying,” Mr. Jeudi said. Many detainees dropped facedown on the ground and laced their fingers behind their heads.

One middle-aged former prisoner said he was standing on the sidelines trying to calm Fredely Percy, a 27-year-old inmate serving time for marijuana possession. “My friend, Fredely, was standing next to me and we were discussing what to do,” the former prisoner said in an interview. “At that moment, I heard ‘Pow,’ and he got hit and fell down.”

Another former detainee, a scrappy man in his 20s, said, in broken English: “They shoot a lot of people. There was a lot of blood on me. Blood, blood. Everybody in the prison have blood on them.”

He said the police shot indiscriminately. “All them people they killed, it’s not even like they were going to escape,” he said. “They just shoot them. Like they nervous, they shoot people.”

Mr. Yonel said he believed that some of the victims were singled out. A former prisoner said that the police executed one of the ringleaders, a man serving a life sentence for murder, after the situation had calmed. The officers found the man in his cell, took him into the infirmary, beat him and shot him, the former inmate said.

“They decided because he had escaped death earlier to kill him,” the former inmate said. He added, “They never liked him.”

A Priest’s Witness

The next day, the Rev. Marc Boisvert, an American priest who runs a large orphanage on the outskirts of town, heard about the prison violence from a radio report. Father Boisvert, a former United States Navy chaplain, has operated a vocational program at the prison for years, training convicts to be tailors. He immediately got in his car and drove to the prison.

“It was a real mess,” he said. “The place was still smoldering.”

The warden, Inspector Larack, welcomed him, he said. “They brought me in to see the damage that had been caused by the prisoners,” Father Boisvert said. “Especially they wanted to show me the bad side: ‘The prisoners did this. Imagine that. Look at the holes in the walls. Look at the ceilings. They burnt the kitchen out.’ ”

Well before the riot, conditions at the prison were “subhuman,” Father Boisvert said. After the riot, with more than 400 prisoners locked down in five or six small cells, the conditions became “seriously inhumane,” he said.

Father Boisvert found several wounded detainees languishing without medical treatment.

One detainee showed him the pellets in his back from a shotgun blast; he said he had been shot at close range, through the bars of his cell. Another detainee, shot by a small-caliber handgun, was writhing in pain, a bullet lodged in his chest. A third had a bloody eye that appeared to be from a bullet casing being ejected, Father Boisvert said.

In the prison yard, one inmate lay catatonic on a bare mattress, apparently in shock from what he had witnessed, Father Boisvert said.

“It was crazy,” he said. “People just lost it. People with guns lost it, and other people lost their lives.”

After Father Boisvert volunteered to provide food to the detainees, he gained relatively free access to the prison, and prisoners began telling him what had happened.

“They all claim that when the shooting started, they had their hands up and were surrendering,” he said. “That the shooting seemed to be at close range, through bars into cells where the people inside had nowhere to go.

“Essentially, when the authorities finally got their act together, they came in full force and shot people indiscriminately in their cells,” he said.

Like Father Boisvert, Ms. Laurencin, 42, also heard about the disturbance at the prison on the radio. She said she was not worried about her husband, Mr. Lisius, the father of her three daughters and a cabinetmaker by trade. In prison since November without having seen a judge, he was too timid to have taken part in an uprising, she said.

Ms. Laurencin said she prepared his favorite dish — fish and plantains — and took it to the prison. But the guards would not let her in. The next day, she returned twice, and the second time she made her way into the yard where she saw prisoners on their knees. They called to her: “Your husband is dead.”

Stunned, Ms. Laurencin went to the morgue to look for her husband’s body. What she saw then haunts her now, she said: a bullet hole in his caved-in head, and his rotted entrails spilling out. He was too damaged for a proper funeral, she said, so she and a couple of friends buried him themselves in the town cemetery.

Since his death, the authorities have never contacted her, she said last month.

Gruesome Photographs

On Jan. 19, after the prison was calmed, a United Nations officer took pictures inside the compound. Those photographs, closely guarded by the United Nations, appear to be the only documentary evidence of the killings.

They show bodies in the prison yard and bodies in cells, according to three people who have viewed them. Several bodies bear multiple gunshot wounds. The images are gruesome, said Mr. Geiger, the American contractor working in Haiti on a justice reform project.

Mr. Geiger, a former Justice Department official, said that a picture of two bodies slumped inside one cell, and a third, half in, half out, most disturbed him. “Unarmed prisoners in a cell are not a danger to anybody,” he said. “Any competent and responsible prison authority knows how to take care of a situation where people in a cell are disturbing, hollering or whatever.”

After the episode was over, prison officials summoned the local justice of the peace, Michel Seide, “to certify the damage incurred in the course of the riot,” according to the warden’s incident report.

When Mr. Seide stepped inside, he immediately saw two bodies on the ground, “one with a big hole in his head, next to his neck,” he said in an interview. The other bodies lay scattered through the main yard, he said. He counted a total of 10, none inside cells, he said. He said he did not know if bodies had been moved before his arrival.

While he was writing a report, a truck arrived to collect the bodies, he said, and the authorities asked a couple of prisoners in good standing to help move them.

One was Mr. Jeudi, who was just completing a five-year sentence for armed robbery. He said that he transported a dozen dead detainees to the hospital, including one found outside the compound, apparently shot while escaping.

“I carried 12 cadavers,” Mr. Jeudi said. “I was sick about it.”

Mr. Jeudi said he also ferried eight wounded detainees to the hospital.

After the bodies had been removed, Alix Civil, the local prosecutor, arrived at the scene, which he described in an interview as “a catastrophic situation.” He said he saw damaged walls, broken cell doors and blood everywhere — details not included in the report he received from the justice of the peace.

“A lot of things were missing from that report,” Mr. Civil said. “It was written only to please the chief of the prison.”

He ordered Mr. Seide to redo his report. Mr. Seide said that he interviewed hospitalized detainees who told him the police shot them, but he would not divulge the conclusion of his second report, which could form the basis for a local prosecution of the officers.

A few days after the shootings, Antoinetta Dorcinat arrived at the morgue just in time to retrieve the body of Mr. Percy, her boyfriend. Ms. Dorcinat said she gave the morgue attendant a bribe of $6.50 “so they wouldn’t throw Fredely away with the others.”

Mr. Yonel, the human rights leader, said the morgue sent 11 bodies to the local cemetery. He said that the cemetery caretaker showed him the muddy clearing where the bodies had been buried.

Detainees’ relatives were not notified before the burial. Lisette Charles said she still did not know where her 21-year-old son, Jacklyn Charles, was buried.

“I didn’t know about what happened until about five days afterward,” Ms. Charles said. “I was told several of them were put in large zippered body bags and piled up at the cemetery. I don’t know what hole they buried him in.”

After word spread, Mr. Yonel said, detainees’ relatives kept showing up at his office, a cubbyhole with books and files piled high, asking: “Why? Why? Why?” Over 26 days, his staff investigated, concluding that the police killed the detainees without justification, and he delivered his findings to the local authorities. “I went before the court and said: ‘You have to have an investigation. You can’t just let this pass,’ ” he said.

But many months did pass, during which the only thing that happened was that Inspector Larack was transferred to the top warden job in the country at the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, which is slowly filling back up with prisoners.

At the penitentiary, Inspector Larack declined to discuss the violence under his watch. He welcomed reporters into the prison’s rubble-strewn courtyard, “my new office.” But he turned rigid when the episode in Les Cayes was raised. He blocked a video camera with his hand — “Stop!” he said — and demanded the videotape.

A Police Report

A couple of weeks later, the Haitian National Police inspector general’s office completed its investigation of the disturbance in Les Cayes and recommended Inspector Larack’s demotion. The investigation focused on only prison officials. The police were not questioned, judging by a confidential inspector general’s report. The catalyst for the inquiry appeared to be growing concern about the prison escapes across the country — and not concern about the deaths at Les Cayes.

The inspector general, Fritz Jean, blamed Inspector Larack for failing to take steps to prevent the disturbance. He also accused him of lying to investigators about who shot the detainees by accusing Mr. Cazeau of mass murder.

The detainees were actually killed, the inspector general’s report said, after Mr. Cazeau, the ringleader, escaped and the police entered the prison.

The inspector general’s report does not raise any questions about the police shootings and whether they were justified. It concludes that the police and prison officials did “estimable work” and should be commended for preventing a majority of the prisoners from fleeing.

Shown a copy of the inspector general’s report, Mr. O’Neill, who served as an adviser to Haiti’s justice reform effort for many years, said it looked like “a whitewash.”

A crucial component of the justice reform effort in Haiti has been to wipe out a culture of impunity, “where government officials literally could get away with murder,” Mr. O’Neill said.

“If things like this can happen in a state-run institution, and it’s not handled properly, that’s a very bad precedent for the future,” he said. “If whoever killed these people are not brought to justice, it sets a bad tone for post-earthquake reconstruction.”

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee that finances foreign aid programs, said that how Haiti ultimately handled the case in Les Cayes would show if it was serious about justice.

“Absent the will to see justice done,” Mr. Leahy said, “we should not waste our money.”

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