Op-ed originally published in Miami Herald and authored by Brian Concannon and Mario Joseph.
A Haitian prosecutor’s order on Wednesday to jail death squad leader Emmanuel Constant is a promising first step toward long-delayed justice for Constant’s victims. But actually achieving justice will require many more steps by both Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse and President Trump, and their administrations.
Our 25 years of experience pursuing cases against Constant and other human-rights violators leads to deep concerns about whether either government will take those steps.
In 2000, Haiti’s government demonstrated that justice was possible despite the challenges during the trial of Constant and others for the April 1994 Raboteau Massacre. The United Nations lauded the that trial as “a landmark for justice in Haiti.”
Haitian judges, prosecutors and other officials led the prosecution, receiving important technical, security, financial and legal help from the international community. But not from the United States, which refused to return Constant for trial, despite both the Haitian government’s request and the 1995 deportation order that finally was executed Tuesday.
Constant was convicted of murder and torture, but in absentia. That conviction provided the basis for Wednesday’s arrest. But it also affords Constant the right to a new trial, which now will take place under a government that consistently undermines prosecutions of notorious human-rights violators.
When former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Haiti in January 2011, the government initially prosecuted him. But when President Michel Martelly assumed office that April, his prosecutors reversed course and convinced the judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. We appealed the dismissal, because Duvalier’s repression constituted crimes against humanity, to which statutes of limitation cannot apply under international law. The appeals court agreed, but prosecutors dragged their feet until Duvalier died in 2014 without facing a trial.
Col. Jean-Robert Gabriel was, like Constant, convicted in absentia for the Raboteau massacre. President Moïse, Martelly’s hand-picked successor, nevertheless appointed Gabriel assistant chief of staff for the army that he is trying revive. Haiti’s army has a long history of brutality and corruption, so human-rights groups see the revival, especially one led by a convicted mass murderer, as troubling.
Even worse, thugs allied with Moïse’s administration lately have been carrying out attacks reminiscent of those by Constant’s death squads against similar civilian populations, with impunity, but on a smaller scale. We fear Constant could help scale up those attacks.
A credible prosecution of Constant must respect both his rights and those of the Raboteau Massacre’s victims, who have official status in the case under Haiti’s “civil party” system. The victims are entitled to a robust prosecution that presents all the available evidence, as well as the right to notice of hearings, to participate in some of them and to appeal rulings that infringe on their rights. The original Raboteau trial is a good benchmark: It included expert testimony from international forensic and military experts, documents from the military archives and extensive victim and witness testimony.
The passage of time since Constant’s crimes in Haiti does not prevent his prosecution. His death squad’s murder and torture of civilians were both widespread and systematic, placing them squarely within the definition of crimes against humanity, so the statute of limitations cannot apply. Constant was convicted under a command responsibility theory, and the evidence was mostly documents, which are as credible as ever.
The United States is Moïse’s international ally and it should use that relationship to ensure that Haiti makes sincere efforts to prosecute Constant. The United States should also compensate for the opportunity missed in 2000 by providing financial and technical support to the prosecution, and the extensive information on Constant’s activities that its intelligence services collected.
Anything less would convert justice delayed into justice denied.
Mario Joseph is managing attorney for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He represents the victims of both the Raboteau massacre and Jean-Claude Duvalier. Brian Concannon worked for BAI in Haiti from 1996-2004, and is executive director of the Massachusetts-based Project Blueprint.