Last Updated: Monday, December 17, 2007 11:00
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This Week in Haiti” is the English section of HAITI LIBERTE newsweekly. For
* THIS WEEK IN HAITI *
December 12-18, 2007
POLITICAL PRISONER RENE CIVIL TO STAND TRIAL THIS WEEK
The well-known Lavalas activist leader Rene Civil will go to trial on Thursday, Dec. 13, to answer charges of forgery, accessory to theft, and the illegal possession of a firearm.
Haitian police arrested Civil and three other men – Julmiste Widlin, Smith Lappe and Fred Jean Louis – on the night of Aug. 25, 2006 for the supposed theft of a vehicle belonging to the Haitian government. The arrest was conducted illegally, without a warrant and after the hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) when a warranted arrest is supposed to be made.
Civil purchased the vehicle – a green Mitsubishi L200 pick-up – in 2001 for $17,000 and had registered it with the police. During the 2004-2006 coup d’etat when Civil took exile in the Dominican Republic, Haitian police had seized the vehicle and used it for their own purposes. Civil had only recently reclaimed the truck before his arrest.
Rene Civil was a leader of Popular Power Youth (JPP), a popular organization founded after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to Haiti following the 1991 to 1994 coup d’etat against his government.
“Liberty or death!” Civil declared on leaving his arraignment in August 2006. “ I have been arrested unjustly with false accusations because I defend democracy, the return of President Aristide, and the reintegration of militants into public service.”
Civil was arrested on May 12, 2006 at the border when attempting to cross into Haiti from the Dominican Republic to attend the May 14, 2006 inauguration of President Rene Preval. He was held in jail for two weeks on other trumped-up charges which were dismissed on August 14, 2006, just two weeks before he was arrested again.
Civil’s lawyers called his arrest “a political act and an abuse of power.” Civil will be represented on Thursday by Mario Joseph of the Bureau of International Lawyers (BAI). Mr. Joseph is optimistic that the charges against his client will be dismissed.
Civil’s health has deteriorated dramatically in the squalid conditions of the National Penitentiary where he has been held without trial for the past year and three months.
ACTIVIST PRIEST GERARD JEAN-JUSTE IN PORT-AU-PRINCE APPEALS COURT
“I am not a visitor. It is my country. I come when I want, only I have a lot of things to do to the United States with the various Haitian communities, and I travel frequently. I am only here for an appointment with the honorable judges of the Court of Appeal in Port on Monday, November 26, 2007 at 10:00 AM. I respect the justice of my country.” So stated Father Gerard Jean-Juste to journalists shortly after stepping off a plane in Port-au-Prince.
Accompanied by his lawyer Mario Joseph of the Office of International Lawyers (BAI), the priest arrived one half hour early for his court appointment. At 11:30 a.m. the hearing began with the three judges of the Court of Appeal: Ms. Lise Pierre Pierre, Mr. Daran and Mr. Eddy Joseph Lebrun. Father Gerard Jean-Juste has been battling charges against him since July 2005 despite international protests in which even Amnesty International participated.
Jean-Juste is charged with the notoriously vague allegation of “criminal association,” as well as illegal possession of weapons. After questioning, the court asked Jean-Juste to summarize his defense.
In response to the charge of “criminal association” he stated: “As a priest my boss is Jesus, then the Bishops, and after them my people are my associates. I am not a member of an association of ‘wrong-doers,’ but a member of an association of benefactors, and in this association Jesus is the boss.”
Regarding the second charge of illegal possession of weapons, he said: “I am a priest, and as a priest my job is to pray and help people who need help. When I worked for President Aristide I had some security guards. After the coup in February 29  I lost the job and with that the security guards too. The Judge who heard my case before wrote that I said I have weapons. Yes, I have weapons: My Bible and my rosary are my weapons. “ Jean-Juste then held up his rosary as supporters of Lavalas, Family party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, shouted out: “Justice, justice for Father Jean-Juste.”
In the end, Judge Pierre Pierre decided not to dismiss the charges. She claimed more time was needed to review the case. Jean-Juste retains his “provisional” freedom. The decision is odd given the two and a half year duration of the high profile case and the fact that the prosecutors conceded that there was no evidence against Jean-Juste.
Writing in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, human rights attorney Brian Concannon, who has prosecuted very high profile cases in Haiti, observed that “Jean-Juste has now faced charges under the Preval administration for as long as he did under the Latortue regime.” According to Concannon a hundred political prisoners, much less prominent than Jean-Juste, continue to languish in Haitian prisons despite Preval’s election in 2006.
Jean-Juste needed police assistance to navigate through a large crowd of enthusiastic supporters outside the court house.
JUSTICE DELAYED, AGAIN
Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste’s struggles with Haiti’s criminal justice system have been a good gauge of the system’s health for the last three years. The latest episode, last month, showed that rule of law is alive in Haiti – if not exactly kicking.
“Fr. Gerry,” a Catholic priest well-known as an advocate for South Florida’s immigrants and Haiti’s poor, has fought charges of murder, treason, weapons possession, disturbing the peace and criminal conspiracy since Haiti’s interim government first arrested him in October 2004. No one has produced any evidence of criminal activity, but that has not stopped Haitian authorities from arresting Jean-Juste three times and jailing him for seven months.
Gerard Latortue, who headed the interim government (March 2004 – May 2006) that arrested Jean-Juste, has returned home to Boca Raton, replaced by an elected government led by President Rene Preval. Jean-Juste has been out of prison since January 2006, when he was released provisionally to seek treatment for leukemia at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
But he still faces charges of illegal gun possession – even though there is no proof he ever possessed any weapons – and criminal conspiracy – even though there is no allegation that he conspired with anyone or planned any crime. There are no witnesses against Fr. Gerry.
When Jean-Juste languished in Haiti’s prisons, his plight was widely condemned by human rights groups and members of Congress as political persecution by an undemocratic regime. When he was released a week before the long-delayed elections that brought President Preval to power, many saw the promise of the return of the rule of law to Haiti.
That promise has been only partially fulfilled. A hearing of Jean-Juste’s challenge to the charges on Nov. 26 before the Appeals Court of Port-au-Prince had many auspicious signs. Jean-Juste and his lawyers made their case freely. Hundreds of supporters turned out without incident. The hearing was orderly. And the prosecutor formally recognized the absence of evidence against Jean-Juste and recommended dismissing all charges.
But the judges declined to dismiss the case, claiming they needed more time to review the file. The Appeals Court has already had 22 months since Jean-Juste filed his appeal, and seven months since a previous appeals hearing in April. That is plenty of time to review almost any file, and more than enough for a file that the prosecutor concedes contains no evidence of wrongdoing.
Jean-Juste has now faced charges under the Preval administration for as long as he did under the Latortue regime. Although Fr. Gerry is not in jail, thousands of other men and women arrested by the interim government are stuck in the democratic government’s prisons, including perhaps a hundred or more political dissidents.
Over 90% of Haiti’s prisoners have never been tried; most were arrested without a warrant and have no evidence against them in their files. Most are poor, and unlike Fr. Gerry, don’t have access to lawyers or supporters to come to court for them.
The cases of Fr. Gerry and others arrested by the Latortue regime are not President Preval’s fault, but they are now his problem. Although comprehensive reform of Haiti’s justice system is complex, dismissing baseless cases is not.
Haiti’s government can advance the cause of justice, bring hundreds of people home to their families, and save money in the prison budget by simply reviewing case files and seeking dismissals unless the files show a good, legal reason to continue. Ending Fr. Gerry’s battle would be an opportune place to start.
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Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org. This essay was published as an Op-Ed in the Dec. 9 edition of Ft. Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel.
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