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Ex-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide appears in court, draws crowd

Along Rue Champ de Mars, he waved to cheering crowds from his slow-moving, police-escorted motorcade. And in Bel Air and St. Martin, gang-infested former strongholds overlooking the empty grounds of the razed presidential palace, he blew kisses from the rooftop of an SUV.

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 59, used a rare public appearance in Haiti’s capital Wednesday to show that he could still draw a crowd.

“The Haitian people love him and today they showed their affection and attachment to him,” Dr. Maryse Narcisse, Aristide’s spokeswoman, told The Miami Herald as the motorcade crept through Delmas 2 with thousands in tow. “Since this morning, they’ve been accompanying him.”

Aristide’s tour of Port-au-Prince came after a three-hour, closed-door audience with a Haitian investigative judge, who summoned him as part of the ongoing murder investigation into the unsolved assassination of agronomist-turned-famous journalist Jean Léopold Dominique.

At the insistence of Dominique’s widow, former radio journalist Michèle Montas, Judge Yvickel Dabresil has been trying to determine the “intellectual author” behind Dominique’s murder and that of a security guard 13 years ago in the courtyard of Dominique’s Radio Haiti-Inter in Port-au-Prince.

“It has been a long, bloody and tortuous investigation but I feel there is now a light at the end of the tunnel. Will we ever find justice? I don’t know but I think we have moved forward,” Montas said.

“I hope this testimony and other crucial ones the judge has gathered in the last few months will allow the truth to finally come out on who engineered, planned the assassination and paid for the crime.”

Narcisse, who accompanied Aristide inside the courthouse, declined to say what was discussed during the secret testimony.

“Jean-Dominique was a friend, a brother to him,” Narcisse said about Aristide. “He believes that as a citizen when the justice summons him, it is his duty to collaborate … Today was an occasion for him to exercise his right as a citizen by being present in court.”

But Aristide is no ordinary Haitian citizen. The founder and head of Fanmi Lavalas, once the most powerful political party in Haiti, Aristide was twice exiled during his two separate presidencies.

Today, two years after his surprise return to Haiti following seven years in exile in South Africa, Aristide’s popularity and that of his fractured Lavalas party remain topics of debate in Haiti and outside.

“Lavalas today showed proof of our slogan: by ourselves, we are weak. Together we are strong,” said Sen. Francky Exius, referring to the thousands who followed the motorcade and lined the capital’s streets.

But while Exius and others hailed Wednesday’s relatively peaceful show of force as a “political victory” against what they say is a politically motivated maneuver by Haitian President Michel Martelly’s government to persecute their former leader, others say it was an exercise in democracy in a fragile Haiti.

“What is taking place today brings neither positive nor negative value to the Lavalas party, which lost the power many years ago and has not, since then, influenced the political, economic, and legal environment,” said Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince-based political analyst. “The Lavalas party is remembered as a dividing force. It remains to be seen whether they have the capacity to reinvent themselves and attract significant votes in the next election.”

The party, after boycotting past elections, has said that it plans to participate in the upcoming senatorial and local elections, and some speculate that after shying away from the public, Aristide may be ready to reengage politically. That engagement would come as Martelly, a nemesis and former musician, prepares to mark two years in office on May 14, and continues to struggle to have Haiti break with the past as demonstrated by the large turnout in favor of his political rival.

The Martelly administration did not comment on the latest developments. The day before, Police Chief Godson Orelus announced a ban on protests. The announcement triggered tensions in the capital where police patrolled several slums where sympathizers had set up barricades and began burning tires. That evening, hundreds stood vigil outside Aristide’s home in Tabarre, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, according to local journalists. The supporters called it a night of solidarity with the ex-president, who fled Haiti into exile in 2004 amid a bloody coup.

On Wednesday, hundreds including opposition lawmakers accompanied Aristide as he arrived at the downtown courthouse at 8:15 a.m. He stepped out of his vehicle minutes before 9 a.m. and walked into the judge’s chambers as a heavy police presence stood outside.

By the time Aristide emerged three hours later, the crowd had grown to several thousands in Port-au-Prince and supporters also had taken to the streets in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest before his 1990 presidential bid, did not speak to journalists.

Earlier, his team had announced a news conference and corralled waiting journalists into a sauna-like courtroom. But the move turned out to be a diversion to allow the ex-leader to leave without making a statement about his secret testimony to Dabresil, who has summoned a long list of persons including former President René Préval who testified last month.

Préval, a close friend of Dominique’s who reopened the case during his 2006-2011 presidency, spent about four hours inside the judge’s chambers. Afterward, he told The Miami Herald it was only natural for the judge to call him, given his close relationship with the activist.

He was the second former Haitian president to appear in court in weeks.

In February, former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier answered questions about his dictatorial past as part of an appeals hearing. He’s fighting to avoid standing trial on corruption charges, and dozens of alleged victims of his regime also want the court to try him on human rights abuses. The appearance came after Duvalier had repeatedly refused to show up.

Like Aristide, Duvalier also returned to Haiti in 2011, after 25 years in exile in France — marking the first time in Haiti’s history that all of its living presidents are on the same island.