The past and present collided in Haiti on Thursday as a weak and frail-looking Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier showed up in court, submitting to questions about his dictatorial past — and telling appeals court judges that Haiti was “a better country” under his 15-year rule.
Dismissive at times and barely audible, a mumbling Duvalier sat next to a clerk who took copious notes by hand and read his answers to a three-judge panel.
Among the probing questions asked by lead Judge Jean-Joseph Lebrun: Did executions and torture occur between 1971 and 1986?
When Lebrun pressed him about his time as president and asked if he “were aware of murders, executions, political imprisonment,’’ Duvalier responded, “Murder existed in all countries. I did not intervene in . . . policies.’’
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Duvalier said he had “a positive record, and in all areas.”
Human rights advocates and victims who accuse Duvalier of failing to prevent or punish human rights abuses while he was president hailed the moment as historic. Others cautioned that the hearing was the first step in a long struggle to try the former dictator for corruption and crimes against humanity.
“Whatever happens next, Haitians will remember the image of their former dictator having to answer questions about the repression carried out under his rule,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “This is already a historic victory in a country where the rich and powerful have always been above the law.”
Haiti’s Appeals Court has been tasked with deciding whether it should uphold or dismiss an investigative judge’s ruling on Duvalier — a once-feared strongman who took power at age 19 when his father Dictator-for-Life Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier died. The investigative judge ruled that Duvalier cannot be tried on human rights abuses because the 10-year statute of limitations has run out but that he should be tried for corruption.
The case involves some 30 Haitians who accused Duvalier of failing to prevent or punish crimes under his command, ordering arrests and prolonged detention and in some cases deaths, and being an “accomplice” to crimes committed by subordinates. They want the appeals court to reinstate their claims.
Judges did not make a decision and will continue the hearing next Thursday.
The case has divided Haitians. Duvalier still has supporters, and some gathered outside of the Port-au-Prince courtroom to cheer him on. But others insist he could be held responsible for what happened while he was president.
Since Duvalier’s 1986 flight to exile amid popular revolt, Haiti has struggled with democracy and stability.
Alix “Boulon” Fils-Aime, who spent 18 months imprisoned on the grounds of the National Palace in a 5-by-8 cell before he was shipped into exile, said the hearing was both historic and somewhat ironic.
“It would have been unthinkable during the Duvalier regime to express oneself in court, and there he was — benefiting from the people’s struggle for democracy,” Fils-Aime said.
Although he sat a few feet behind Duvalier, Fils-Aime said the two barely made eye contact. At one point, Lebrun admonished Duvalier’s longtime companion, Veronique Roy, not to answer on his behalf.
“[Duvalier] screwed up all his answers. He just twisted things,” Fils-Aime said. “He knew and he tried to shift the blame toward dead people.”
It was the first time Fils-Aime had seen Duvalier since the former president made a dramatic return to Haiti two years ago after 25 years in exile in France.
“As a human being I felt some empathy,” said Fils-Aime. But, he said, “I am not interested in his personal suffering. I don’t want what I went through for him or anybody. But there must be a correcting of the wrongs; there must be justice.”
Duvalier’s lawyers tried unsuccessfully to have the proceedings closed.
Duvalier has filed his own appeal in the case, rejecting the investigative judge’s claims that he should be tried on corruption charges.
But as the Duvalier drama came to a close Thursday, another drama appeared to be playing out. Haitian Sen. John Joel Joseph told Radio Kiskeya that former Presidents René Préval and possibly Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had been summoned to answer questions in an unrelated case: the murder of journalist Jean Dominique.
Dominique, a close friend of Préval, was assassinated in 2000. Dominique’s wife, Michèle Montas, was among the first to file rights complaints against Duvalier after his return.
Montas was not in the courtroom Thursday but said there is “an obvious attempt to politicize the Duvalier case by introducing Jean’s case into the mix.”
“Suddenly pulling the case out of a hat at a time when Jean-Claude Duvalier is expected to be heard by the court is preposterous,’’ she said.