By Ben Fox
ABOVE PHOTO: Haiti’s former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, center, waves to supporters from a hotel balcony after his arrival in Port-au-Prince, Haiti,. Duvalier returned to Haiti after nearly 25 years in exile, a surprising and perplexing move that comes as his country struggles with a political crisis and the stalled effort to recover from last year’s devastating earthquake.
(AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haitian authorities want Jean-Claude Duvalier to leave the country, but the once-feared dictator will not go, one of his lawyers said Wednesday.
Defense attorney Reynold Georges told reporters that it is Duvalier’s right to remain in Haiti, but that he is free to go. He stressed that Haiti’s government has not ordered Duvalier to return to France following his surprise return on Sunday.
“He is free to do whatever he wants, go wherever he wants,” Georges said of the once-feared strongman, known as “Baby Doc.” “It is his right to live in his country … He is going to stay. It is his country.”
Georges said a Haitian judge who met with the 59-year-old former leader, who apparently does not have a valid Haitian passport, asked him when he planned to leave. “They want him to leave,” he insisted.
Duvalier, who assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his notorious father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, faces accusations of corruption and embezzlement for allegedly pilfering the treasury before his 1986 ouster. He returned to Haiti on Sunday evening after being exiled for nearly 25 years.
Alice Blanchet, a special adviser to Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, refused to speculate about Duvalier’s plans to remain in Haiti as it struggles to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election, as well as a cholera epidemic and a troubled recovery from the last year’s devastating earthquake.
“Let justice do its job, run its course. He is a citizen and no one is above the law,” she said in a Wednesday e-mail.
Haitian authorities moved toward trying Duvalier for alleged corruption and embezzlement during his brutal 15-year rule by opening an investigation on last week. Judges questioned him for hours behind closed doors in a court in Haiti’s capital, defense attorney Gervais Charles said.
A judge of instruction will decide whether there is enough evidence to go to trial, Charles said. The process that can take up to three months.
Haiti’s system allows for pretrial detention, but Duvalier was allowed to remain free and returned to his hotel room under police escort following the questioning. His longtime companion Veronique Roy had earlier said Duvalier expected his trip from France, where he has lived in exile, would last three days.
“If he has to leave (the country), he will ask and he will leave,” Charles said. “As of now, he doesn’t even have a passport.”
There are no signs of widespread support for Duvalier, who has spent most of his time in a high-end hotel. Demonstrations on his behalf have been relatively small by Haiti standards. More than half the nation’s people are too young to have lived through his government.
Duvalier has been accused in the past in Haiti of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in public money and overseeing the torture and killing of political enemies. He was not in handcuffs as he arrived at a courthouse Tuesday, nor was he handcuffed when he left.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have urged the Haitian government to arrest Duvalier for widespread abuses. Amnesty International issued a statement praising what it called “the arrest” of Duvalier but said it was just a start.
“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,” the group said.
Fifty-six-year-old Chal Christen, waved a flag of Duvalier’s political party — one he said he’d had stored away since the one-time “president for life” was deposed in a popular uprising and forced into exile nearly 25 years ago.
“We don’t have food, our houses collapsed, our children can’t go to school. It’s Preval that is the dictator,” Christen said. “We want Duvalier for president. Under him we ate well, we were safe.”
Fenel Alexi, a 31-year-old mechanic, watched the scene and denounced both Duvalier and Preval, a former anti-Duvalier activist.
“The citizens of this country have endured so much crime,” Alexi said. “We haven’t had a president who hasn’t committed crimes.”
Robert Sterlin, a former ambassador under Duvalier who has said in recent days that he was speaking as a spokesman for the former dictator, told reporters at the scene he was shocked by the developments. “Let’s see if they put him in prison,” he said.
Duvalier assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The father and son presided over one of the most brutal chapters in Haitian history, a period when a secret police force known as the Tonton Macoute tortured and killed opponents. The private militia of sunglass-wearing thugs enforced the Duvalier dynasty’s absolute power and lived off extortion.
At Fort Dimanche, a fortress prison, Haitians were executed or died of malnutrition during the 1957-1986 Duvalier dictatorships. Ripples of pain and violence stemming from the Duvalier family’s dictatorship over 29 years still deeply scar many Haitians, including those who were forced into exile abroad.
Duvalier has also been accused of pilfering millions of dollars from public funds and spiriting them out of the country to Swiss banks, though he denies stealing from Haiti.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Tuesday that Duvalier’s return increases the chance that he could be charged with atrocities committed during his 15-year rule because it will be easier to bring charges in the country where the crimes occurred.
He cautioned, though, that Haiti’s fragile judicial system may be in no position to mount a case.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California congresswoman with long-standing interest in Haiti, said she was worried that wealthy Haitians may have promoted the return of the former dictator, hoping to benefit if he returns to power. A power vacuum is possible when Preval leaves office on Feb. 7, she said.
“Duvalier’s return raises serious questions about who in Haiti facilitated his return and what his supporters expect to gain by bringing him back,” Waters said in a statement from Washington. “It is important that we determine what role U.S. officials played, if any, in facilitating Duvalier’s return.”
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the U.S. was surprised by Duvalier’s return. He said that the State Department was informed about Duvalier’s return about an hour before he landed at Port-au-Prince’s airport.
Duvalier and his family spent years living in luxury on the French Riviera, driving fancy sports cars and staying in exclusive villas. Following financial difficulties, Duvalier moved to the Paris region in 1993. He allegedly lost a large part of his fortune when he was separated from his free-spending wife. The Duvalier clan has waged a long-running battle to retrieve at least $4.6 million frozen in a Swiss bank.
For most of his exile, the ex-despot was quiet. But in September 2007, Duvalier took to Haitian radio from abroad to apologize for “wrongs” committed under his rule and urged supporters to rally around his fringe political party.
A handful of loyalists campaigned to bring Duvalier home from exile, launching a foundation to improve the dictatorship’s image and reviving his political party in the hope that he could one day return to power democratically.
Meanwhile, a former lawyer for ex-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide said Wednesday that the ousted leader has repeatedly applied for a Haitian passport but has never heard back from his homeland’s government.
Brian Concannon, the head of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, said President Rene Preval’s government “simply refuses to respond” to Aristide’s requests for a passport.
Aristide’s office in South Africa has not responded to requests for comment. After being ousted in 2004, Aristide was flown into African exile aboard a U.S. plane.