By DIONNE SEARCEY, Wall Street Journal
A plan before a congressional panel that is intended to prod the Haitian government to clean up its justice system could end up blocking funds for some U.S.-backed judicial-reform programs in the earthquake-ravaged nation.
The proposed Senate Appropriations Committee measure takes aim at alleged killings at the overcrowded prison in Les Cayes, Haiti, in the wake of the deadly Jan. 12 quake.
The Haitian government said it is investigating a jail riot in the days after the quake in which some prisoners died, but it hasn’t elaborated on the circumstances. The United Nations has launched an investigation into the alleged shootings by guards of dozens of prisoners during the escape attempt.
The Appropriations proposal, put forth by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, says that in light of the incident at Les Cayes “no funds … should be obligated for justice programs in Haiti until a thorough, credible and transparent investigation occurs, the results of which are made publicly available, and the [Haitian government] takes appropriate action.”
The language, while not binding, is still powerful and would likely be honored. If the proposal is approved, at least one U.S.-backed justice-reform program in Haiti expects to shut its doors, according to people close to the group.
For more than a decade, Sen. Leahy, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, has pressed for Haiti to shape up its badly corrupt justice system. Judges in Haiti are frequently no-shows for court hearings, and many prisoners languish in detention without being charged with crimes, experts on Haiti’s justice system say.
“Reforming Haiti’s dysfunctional justice system is an urgent necessity, requiring more than good intentions,” said David Carle, a spokesman for Sen. Leahy. “The United States has spent many millions over the years trying to do that, with few if any positive results. This pattern has to change.” The incident in Les Cayes was a prominent example of the Haitian justice system’s problems, Mr. Carle said, and merits a tough stance to prevent money being wasted until the Haitian government can show it wants to change.
Alice Blanchet, a special adviser to Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, said the inspector general of the Haitian National Police and the police department in the city of Les Cayes are investigating the incident. “It is really sad to have this situation block any funds that could come at a time when it’s most needed,” she said.
The riot in Les Cayes was first brought to light when an article in the New York Times accused Haitian authorities of fatally shooting unarmed prisoners and then trying to cover up the killings.
Because of Sen. Leahy’s proposal, one program that was just getting up and running has notified staff that it is likely to close next month. The program, ProJustice, is financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development and run by San Francisco-based DPK Consulting.
According to DPK’s website, ProJustice trains Haitian judges in overseeing property disputes, in dispute resolution and in protection of minors who have become human-trafficking targets. It also aims to help the government update its criminal code, offer infrastructure improvements to courthouses, give legal aid to the poor and try to reduce pretrial detention, which experts say is often misused in Haiti.
Officials at DPK and a spokeswoman at USAID declined to comment. A person familiar with ProJustice’s work said its contract was for about $20 million, to be spent over five years with its funds paid in installments. It has enough money to pay workers through July 7, and after that likely will need to fire its 24 staff members as well as support staff, this person said.
A U.S. government official said funding for the group was in flux and that it was possible the program could remain open with a sharply curtailed mission.
“Congress also needs confidence that the U.S. officials who administer these programs have the expertise to ensure that U.S. tax dollars are used well,” said Mr. Carle, Sen. Leahy’s spokesman.
Some legal experts question whether severing funding would have the intended effect on a justice system in which suspects can’t post bail and prison conditions are squalid.
“This kind of circular reasons of we’ll give you help then abandon you is a profoundly sad situation,” said Gerald Shargel, a New York criminal-defense attorney who has researched the Haitian justice system. “At the end of the day the Haitian people are simply left to suffer.”
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