PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who repeatedly defied a judge’s request to appear in court, may soon have to face his alleged victims in a courtroom and answer questions about his brutal regime.
A three-judge Haitian appeals court panel, tasked with deciding whether Duvalier should stand trial for human rights abuses and corruption during his 15-year rule, said it was “imperative” that Duvalier present himself and ordered the public prosecutor to make sure he is escorted to the courtroom “without delay.”
Similar to a subpoena, the action is one step below an arrest order but it does require police to accompany Duvalier to court sometime within the next week.
Foreign observers and some of the 30 individuals who are appealing a Haitian investigative judge’s earlier decision that Duvalier cannot be tried for crimes against humanity, called Thursday’s decision “a victory.”
“This is a chink in his armor of impunity,’’ said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “This is an important step to say he’s not above the law. He’s going to have to answer questions.’’
Plaintiffs, however, cautioned that the battle is far from over. Haiti is notorious for its broken justice system, and many doubt the government wants to put Duvalier on trial. Some of the top government posts are held by supporters of the regime, with the newly appointed minister of interior also being the head of Duvalier’s political party.
“They don’t have any political will to combat corruption or impunity in the society. They have yet to send a clear signal,” said Yolene Gilles with Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.
On Wednesday, the network issued a stern letter to President Michel Martelly after the Palm Beach Post reported that Karl Jean-Jeune, an assistant to his wife, was a wanted fugitive in South Florida. Jean-Jeune was on a six-year probation after pleading guilty to stealing nearly $30,000 from a bank where he worked as a teller.
Jean-Jeune issued a letter saying that he had hired a lawyer to take care of the case, but prosecutors told The Post on Thursday they are only interested in his surrender.
As the Jean-Jeune episode played out Thursday, so too did the Duvalier case. His lead attorney, Reynold Georges, arrived 90 minutes after the proceedings started. Georges said he had appealed to Haiti’s supreme court making Thursday’s hearing moot.
One plaintiff lawyer, former Justice Minister Jean Joseph Exume demanded Duvalier’s arrest, telling judges he was “in rebellion” against justice by failing to show for the third straight time.
“They are no longer giving him a choice; the police are going to go get him,” said Robert Duval, a former soccer star whose release from Duvalier’s jail was secured by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “But I can’t get total satisfaction until he is judged. There is a battle being carried out here.”
That battle said Danielle Magloire, coordinator of Haiti’s Collective Against Impunity, is on behalf of all who lost their lives during the Duvalier years.
Duvalier fled into exile in 1986. But the legal case then — as now — was full of twists and turns. It was resumed two years ago when Duvalier made a surprise return. He was arrested, and charged with human rights abuses and corruption.
An investigative judge later said he could only be tried on the embezzlement charges. He is appealing that ruling.