After 27 years and 21 days, former dictator and President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier finally faced justice. In a packed courtroom that included people who were tortured and exiled by his government, a Haitian judge and Haitian lawyers questioned Duvalier in open court on Feb. 28. This was a historic first in Haiti, where complete impunity has always reigned.
The judge probed whether Duvalier was in command from 1971, the year his father, Francois Duvalier, died, until 1986, when Jean-Claude, known as “Baby Doc,” fled into exile. This is important because under the doctrine of “command responsibility,” Duvalier as head of state and of the entire Haitian security sector was responsible for preventing and punishing illegal acts committed by his subordinates.
In an interview with veteran journalist Bernard Diederich of Miami after going into exile, Duvalier claimed that, even though he was only 19 when he took power, he gradually took control of every aspect of governing. Lawyers call this an “admission against interest” and he cannot claim now that he was not in charge.
The judge also asked Duvalier whether there were deaths in prison and summary executions during his presidency. Duvalier’s response was more than disingenuous, noting that there are deaths in all countries. The historical record established by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the U.S. State Department, and groups like the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, Amnesty International and Americas Watch all documented many cases of extrajudicial killings committed inside and outside Haitian prisons by state agents.
Duvalier now claims that he took action against those who violated the law but there was not a single prosecution of a Haitian army or police officer for violating human rights in Duvalier’s 15 years as commander in chief.
When asked about how prisoners were treated, Duvalier claimed that Boby Duval, one of Haiti’s best known former political prisoners, was well-treated and that his family brought him food three times a day. This was certainly news to Duval, who was in the courtroom and left the dungeons of Fort Dimanche, Haiti’s most notorious prison where few survived, weighing about 100 pounds, half his normal weight.
The judge’s questions reveal that he understands international law much more than the previous judge who ruled that Duvalier could not be prosecuted because he did not commit any crimes himself and that, even if he did, Haiti’s statute of limitations has long expired. Yet both these principles must yield to binding international law.
The assassinations and torture sessions conducted by Haitian officers under Duvalier’s command and control were not occasional or rogue acts but part of a widespread and systematic campaign to terrorize Haitians, constituting what are now called “crimes against humanity.”
These crimes are not subject to any statute of limitations, so it is never too late to prosecute. Moreover, “disappearances” are crimes that do not end until the person has been found, dead or alive. Hubert Legros, an eminent Haitian jurist was abducted from his home in January 1973. His daughter, Gloria, later learned that he had been taken to Fort Dimanche. A fellow prisoner later told her that her father was killed in December 1975, but his remains have never been found. For Gloria Legros and the many relatives of those whose fate remains unknown, the crime continues and cannot be barred by statutory time limits.
Torture victims like Boby Duval, Alix Fils-Aimé and those subjected to illegal arrest and exile like Michèle Montas can take heart from the decision in late January in Guatemala to prosecute another former head of state, General Efraín Ríos Montt, for crimes also committed 30 years ago. Similarly, ex-President Hissen Habré of Chad is being tried in Senegal for crimes committed on his watch in the 1980s.
After the January 2010 earthquake, the new mantras are “building Haiti back better” and “Haiti is open for business.” Neither statement can be true unless Haiti first faces its past and identifies the reasons for its deep poverty and predatory governments.
The impunity enjoyed by Duvalier is directly connected to Haiti’s enduring ills. Establishing Duvalier’s criminal responsibility is a first step in reversing the power of the Créole proverb: “Laws are paper, bayonets are steel.”
Bill O’Neill is a an international lawyer based in New York who has worked on Haiti issues for over 25 years.