PORT-AU-PRINCE -- On a desolate street in this recovering capital, supporters of former Haitian President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier lamented his possible fate as the former dictator prepares to come face-to-face with his troubling legacy.
Duvalier, 61, is scheduled to appear in a Haitian court Thursday, facing accusations of crimes against humanity and corruption but fighting efforts to put him on trial. He has failed to show up on three previous occasions, and his followers are upset that this time, a three-judge Haitian appeals court panel has ordered a police escort to assure his presence as it examines legal arguments of the case.
In a country extremely sensitive about its dictatorial past, this quagmire of a case is opening old wounds, raising doubts about the judicial process and resurrecting conspiracy theories.
“What about all of the others who are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Haitians after he left? Why don’t they go after them?” said Gerard Hyppolite, 71, as a chorus of agreement emanated from the crowd of supporters outside Duvalier’s political party’s headquarters. “It’s a plot against him.”
Duvalier was only 19 when he assumed power in 1971 upon the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He inherited a brutal system that included a secret militia and military that specialized in terror. While supporters point out that Haiti had jobs during the era, critics say thousands were killed or tortured and government coffers were looted.
Duvalier fled into exile in 1986 and returned in 2011. Shortly after he came back, Duvalier issued a rare public apology “to those countrymen who rightly feel they were victims of my government.”
Some wonder whether the one-time despot will ever be tried for corruption and human rights abuses. Still others wonder about the motives of foreign human rights observers who pack the wooden benches inside the sauna-like courtroom, sitting next to many of the 30 people who have filed human rights complaints against Duvalier.
The past — courtroom clerks still take notes by hand — is colliding with the future as Haitians contemplate who else from Haiti’s bloody past could possibly be next to answer for their deeds.
Haiti’s Collective Against Impunity, a local human rights organization, represents 22 of the 30 plaintiffs.
Danielle Magloire, coordinator of the collective, said their fight is not only for justice but also for the “collective memory” of a nation whose majority young citizens lack personal remembrance of what the Duvalier era represented.
For all Haitians, it’s a historic moment when they will be challenged to reconcile with the country’s past.
“Until you come to terms with the nature of the dictatorship publicly, I don’t think you can go on,” said Robert Fatton, a longtime Haiti watcher and political science professor at the University of Virginia. “It’s true many of the people under Duvalier are old now, but they don’t forget. All of those who have been jailed, or intimidated or sent into exile, they want some clarity on the past.”
But even as the victims seek clarity, many wonder if it’s even possible in Haiti.
Last year, the investigative judge assigned to the case ruled that Duvalier should be tried only on embezzlement charges and that the statute of limitations had run out on the human rights abuses allegations. But the victims are appealing that ruling and Duvalier is appealing the decision to try him on corruption charges. The three-judge panel now must decide whether to uphold the investigative judge’s two-part ruling.
“If the judge was doing his work, he would have interrogated victims here and abroad, he would have gone to the death chambers with engineers, experts and with victims,” said Rodolfo Mattarollo, a Latin American human rights expert. “He never left the buildings of the tribunal.”
Many here question Haitian President Michel Martelly’s commitment to prosecute Duvalier.
Sons and daughters of Duvalierists are in top government posts now, and recently the foreign ministry renewed Duvalier’s diplomatic passport. All former Haitian heads of state are entitled to the passport, said a ministry official in defending the decision. Some say Martelly, already under immense pressure over the need for long-overdue elections, doesn’t want to make waves with the case.
“Martelly doesn’t want trouble with Duvalier and he doesn’t want to get bad press either. He’s playing the game and hoping that the judicial system will push that away for him,” Fatton said.
Friends of Duvalier argue that it’s unfair to judge the sins of the father — “Papa Doc”— through his son.
These days, Duvalier “doesn’t talk a lot. He’s very reserved, but psychologically this has to be tough,” said a close confidante who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On the rare occasions when he does talk about the past, friends said Duvalier describes being a “strong president” who only used 5 percent of his power and “never ordered the arrest or deaths of anyone.”
Duvalier declined an interview request by The Miami Herald.
Friends said he wants to get through the case, and spends his time working on a two-volume book that will detail his childhood and nearly 15-year presidency. He’s also working on a plant nursery.
The formerly high-profile Duvalier has stopped accepting public invitations and limits his outings to his downtown Port-au-Prince office, a block away from the now razed presidential palace, and visits with a small group of friends. He often can be spotted either very early or late at night driving his white SUV.
Almost always he’s dressed in a suit. “When you suggest that he put on a Guayabera or a short sleeve shirt, he responds, ‘I’m a former head of state, and have to have respect for the institution,’ ” the friend said.
Duvalier’s sudden reclusiveness is in sharp contrast to the first year of his return when he moved like a man who had awakened from a 25-year coma. Public sightings of him were common as he ate at tony restaurants, danced at weddings, paid his respects at funerals and toured the outskirts of the capital — all with a police escort sounding their sirens in tow.
One of his last high-profile public appearances was also one of his most controversial. Invited to the Haitian government’s Jan. 12, 2012, earthquake remembrance ceremony near the site where bodies of the regime’s victims were unceremoniously discarded, he was welcomed as a former head of state. Duvalier shook hands with guests, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was obviously caught off guard.
Meanwhile, Magloire, of the collective, said, “We have to continue the fight. If we don’t, then we will be responsible for all of Haitian society never believing in anything that concerns the government. This battle is bigger than me.”
“We could lose, but everyone would see the reason why is because something wasn’t correct,” she said.