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.