Historic Milestone for Ending Impunity
In September 1991, a group of officers from the Armed Forces of Haiti (acronymed as “FADH” or “FAd’H” in French) overthrew Haiti’s first democratically elected president and imposed a military dictatorship led by Lieutenant General Raoul Cédras. Opposition to the coup was so fierce that the regime created FRAPH, a paramilitary organization alternatively described as a ‘death squad,’ to suppress it. The FADH and FRAPH jointly served as the arms of political violence for the Cédras regime and were implicated in the extrajudicial killings of as many as 4,000 Haitians, as well as in thousands of incidents of rape, torture, arson, and arbitrary detention during the three years of the regime. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of Haitians fled their country.
On November 9, 2000, after five years of pretrial proceedings and six weeks of trial, an unprecedentedly diverse jury convicted sixteen former FADH soldiers and FRAPH paramilitaries for their roles in one of the regime’s most notorious abuses: the Raboteau Massacre. A week later, the judge handed down a guilty verdict and lifetime imprisonment sentence for another 37 defendants – including the entire FADH high command and the heads of FRAPH – who had fled Haiti and were therefore prosecuted in absentia. Under Haitian law, those defendants would now be subject to arrest upon returning to Haiti, with the choice of accepting the conviction or demanding a new trial. Victims who had participated in the trial as “civil parties” were further awarded one billion Haitian gourdes in damages (approximately U.S. $43 million at the time).
The Raboteau Massacre Trial represented an opening for justice in Haiti. The FADH, with its long history of coups and violent repression, was disbanded in 1995, as pretrial proceedings commenced. The very undertaking marked a sharp break with impunity for government abuses as the first prosecution of Haiti’s military leaders for human rights violations. The trial also embodied effective strengthening of the capacity and credibility of Haiti’s justice sector: proceedings exhibited investments in trainings for justice sector actors as well as judicial infrastructure; featured litigation tools like expert testimony and DNA evidence which had not previously been used in criminal proceedings in Haiti; invested in victim participation as well as public ability to observe (all proceedings were broadcast live on national radio and often on television in Creole); and were scrupulously fair to defendants. In short, the trial demonstrated that Haiti was committed to justice and was developing effective tools for achieving accountability for abuses previously shielded with institutional impunity.
Promise of Justice Betrayed
In the intervening years, successive Haitian governments have not lived up to that promise. By the time another coup had displaced the democratically elected government in 2004, all of the Raboteau defendants were no longer in prison, most having escaped. Despite their absence, in April of 2005, Haiti’s highest court (Cour de Cassation), which had been refusing to issue a decision on defendants’ appeals from years earlier, suddenly vacated the jury verdict in a decision that has been widely criticized as unconstitutional, procedurally unsound, politically motivated, and contrary to applicable international law. A Gonaïves chief registrar issued an order, sharply denounced by the BAI as unlawful, negating the conviction in absentia of Carl Dorélien (assistant chief of staff of the FADH under Cédras), who had in the interim returned to Haiti, been arrested pursuant to the Raboteau conviction without demanding a new trial, and then escaped from prison. Most visibly today, Jean-Robert Gabriel, the former spokesperson for Cédras who was convicted in absentia as one of the intellectual authors of the Raboteau Massacre, not only returned to Haiti, but was also appointed, yet again, to a top position in the recently revived FADH. BAI sharply criticized the move as giving Gabriel a platform to “resume military barbarism and show disdain for the legitimate rights of the Haitian people.”
A New Opportunity to End Impunity
The deportation of Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, founder of FRAPH, to Haiti on June 23 offers a new opening for returning to the promise of the Raboteau Massacre Trial. Constant, who had fled Haiti for the United States, only to be held liable there for his crimes as head of FRAPH civilly and then to be criminally convicted and jailed for mortgage fraud, was abruptly paroled to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on April 7, 2020 in spite of the sentencing judge’s finding that “[g]iven the uncertainty of the political situation in Haiti and the very real chance that defendant may be able to evade justice due to the instability in the Haitian judicial system, it is the court’s hope that defendant remain in New York State for the full term of incarceration” (of 37 years).
The government of Haiti now has the opportunity to reverse nearly two decades of regression from the promise of the Raboteau Massacre Trial by making meaningful Haitian law and ending impunity for the Raboteau Massacre and the other abuses of the Cédras regime. As Mario Joseph of the BAI wrote in his recent letter to the Haitian Ministry of Justice and Public Security, the Haitian government should commit to arresting and delivering to justice any convicted Raboteau defendants who are found on Haitian soil: not only Constant, but also those who, like Gabriel, are already present in Haiti and have to date been allowed to flourish or even regain high government positions.
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