Correspondents* – IPS/AlterPresse
HAVANA TIMES, Jan.18 (IPS) — Human rights groups are urging Haitian authorities to seize the opportunity of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier’s surprise return to the country Sunday to prosecute him for the atrocities committed during his 15-year reign.
Duvalier, who has been living in exile in France, was taken for questioning to the attorney-general’s office Tuesday to answer accusations of corruption, and later released.
“His fate is now in the hands of the investigating judge. We have brought charges against him,” Port-au-Prince’s chief prosecutor, Aristidas Auguste, told Reuters.
According to the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, an extensive review conducted for the Haitian government by a U.S. accounting firm between 1986 and 1990 established the theft of over 300 million dollars of public funds. Other lawsuits put the total sum diverted out of the country at nearly a billion dollars.
The groups also stress that the political killings and torture under his regime have no statute of limitations as they are considered “crimes against humanity”, a position shared by heavyweights like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
“The arrest of Jean-Claude Duvalier is a positive step but it is not enough to charge him only with corruption,” said Amnesty International’s senior advisor and Haiti expert, Javier Zuñiga, in a statement Tuesday.
“If true justice is to be done in Haiti, the Haitian authorities need to open a criminal investigation into Duvalier’s responsibility for the multitude of human rights abuses that were committed under his rule including torture, arbitrary detentions, rape, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions,” he said.
Duvalier’s return to Haiti on Sunday, almost exactly 25 years after his departure to France on Feb. 7, 1986, has risen more than a few eyebrows. In a radio interview, he claimed that he only wanted to assist in Haiti’s rebuilding following the devastating earthquake and cholera epidemic, and had no political agenda.
While enthusiastic crowds surrounded his upscale hotel, many Haitians were appalled at his reappearance.
“Jean-Claude Duvalier should have come back to the country a long time ago, extradited from France at the demand of Haitian authorities and imprisoned for his many crimes and all the stolen assets,” said Arnold Antonin, an award- winning Haitian filmmaker.
Antonin said he felt “indignation” at the welcome offered to Duvalier upon his arrival at Toussaint Louverture airport.
“Baby Doc”, as Duvalier is also known – he succeeded his father, the late dictator François Duvalier, dubbed “Papa Doc” – received a police escort worthy of a high-ranking official, and was reportedly cheered by crowds of supporters.
“It is an insult” to all the victims of the Duvaliers’ reign, said Antonin, recalling among others the great Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis, assassinated in 1961, and the activist Alix Lamothe, executed in 1968.
Robert Duval is one of those victims, although he managed to survive his many months locked in the notorious Fort Dimanche prison. A former soccer star and the founder of L’Athletique d’Haiti, which helps children living in the capital’s vast slums, he says he is still unable to fathom the news of Baby Doc’s return.
“The horror is that I was in prison under Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime… In 1976, they came, entered my office and brought me to the Casernes Dessalines [army barracks]. I spent 17 months there. Then, under false charges, they condemned me and sent me to Fort Dimanche,” he recalled.
Duval spent 18 months in what the inmates there called “the human hell”. No formal charges were ever filed, he said, the torturers alone decided his guilt.
“And they sent you to Fort Dimanche for you then to disappear. Because when you are sent to Fort Dimanche, it’s like you are condemned to death…and every day two or three people died,” he said.
Some 50,000 people were murdered, thousands in them in Fort Dimanche, during the 30-year father and son Duvalier dictatorships, Duval said, a period that has become synonymous for many Haitians with political and economic oppression.
“It’s him who established agreements with the international institutions that opened the country up…to economic destruction,” Duval said. “When he left in 1986, it was a relief for everybody, because we couldn’t bear it anymore, neither politically nor economically.”
The return of Jean-Claude Duvalier has raised many questions, along with suspicions of French or even Haitian government complicity.
“We are in an already very chaotic situation and this has added fuel to the fire. A hand manipulates all this, this is not random,” said Gerald Mathurin, the agriculture minister during Prime Minister René Préval’s first term from 1996 to 2001.
According to Mathurin, who leads an association of community and rural organizations known by the acronym CROSE, the government and the international community “are stakeholders” in the situation, with a possible “plan to further cloud the issue regarding the [Nov. 28] elections’
Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP), agrees. “It is a way to turn people’s attention from Préval and his government, from his Electoral Council and the elections,” he said.
“For us, the priority is not Jean-Claude Duvalier’s return, but the resolution of the country’s political problems,”
Arnold Antonin also believes the return is simply a “diversion”.
“It shows that Haiti is going backwards,” he said. “There has not been any democratic transition but continuity of the Duvalierism in other forms.”
“Since his departure in 1986, we thought the country would go forward but we entered in an endless crisis, so that historically we have gone backwards,” stressed Robert Duval.
This return means “symbolically, that we are a nation that cannot find its way. The social contradictions are so acute… it is the weakness of the progressive organizations which has allowed such a grave return,” Duval said.
*Based in part on an article by AlterPresse, with additional reporting by IPS correspondent Cleo Fatoorechi in New York.