For two months last year, retired gynecologist Nicole Magloire arrived at the packed Port-au-Prince courtroom weekly and took her usual seat — front row, just to the right.
Magloire, 75, did so again Thursday as a three-judge panel reconvened after a nine-month hiatus to decide on the fate of former President-for-Life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. She didn’t expect much. Then the judges dropped a bombshell: allegations that Duvalier tortured, killed and imprisoned opponents should go forward.
“We didn’t give up,” said Magloire, one of the 30 people who have filed human rights complaints against Duvalier. “This has given us a huge boost to continue the resistance we started, and to not betray the people who died.”
The judges’ decision to reinstate crimes against humanity was a huge blow to the frail former dictator, who has been battling to stay out of prison since returning in January 2011 from France after 25 years in exile.
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Reynold Georges, Duvalier’s lead attorney, said shortly after the ruling that he wanted to reserve comment until he reads the decision.
But Georges did say that he takes issue with the ruling. The panel needed to wait for a decision on his filing, charging that the court lacked jurisdiction in the case because “there is a statute of limitations, and second, they have already judged Duvalier before on economic crimes. They cannot come back with that again.”
Georges also argues that in Haiti the statute of limitations on human rights crime is 10 years and international law doesn’t apply because Haiti never ratified it.
“You cannot condemn someone using a law that doesn’t exist,” he said.
Nicole Phillips, a human rights lawyer with Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy, praised the ruling, as did others, including the Canadian government.
“This ruling today is a total victory not only for the victims of Jean-Claude Duvalier but also the Haitian legal system,” said Phillips, who was in the courtroom as the decision was read. “This is showing that a court is willing to address the issue of impunity as Duvalier is floating around as a senior statesman. Now, you have a court that has ordered a very thorough investigation into the facts, crimes committed by him as well as people close to him. This is a very, very important ruling.”
Duvalier has long maintained his innocence. In a 2011 interview with the Miami Herald, he and his lawyers punched holes in the 25-year-old legal case. They challenged it on procedural grounds and argued that the statute of limitations had expired.
Duvalier himself shrugged off claims that he and his supporters pillaged the national treasury and that he spirited away $120 million in public money when he fled on Feb. 7, 1986. He also denied charges that he had ordered the deaths and imprisonment of opponents, including Magloire. A one-time anti-Duvalier student activist under Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Magloire was jailed on Nov. 28, 1980, under the “Baby Doc” regime, along with scores of other Haitian intellectuals and journalists.
Some were severely beaten and exiled by the regime’s secret police, the TonTon Macoutes, after they were arrested under a 1969 anti-communist law that considered government criticism “crimes against the state.”
But even as Magloire and human rights observers applaud the appeals court’s decision, they were not always so confident after launching their fight to overturn an investigative judge’s 2012 decision that Duvalier should only face the lesser corruption charges.
They questioned whether the case would move forward.
President Michel Martelly had suggested during the campaign that amnesty be granted to Duvalier and former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who also had returned from exile. Martelly later backed off the statement, saying he would let the judiciary do its work.
Last month in an unrelated case, an investigative judge stopped short of accusing Aristide in the unsolved high-profile political assassination of Haiti’s most well-known journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique. Instead, the judge recommended that nine individuals be charged in his 2000 murder, including an ex-senator from Aristide’s political party. The recommendation is now in the hands of another three-judge Appeals Court panel.
In a move his supporters call efforts to reconcile Haiti’s past and present, Martelly has invited Duvalier, Aristide and other former presidents to official events, including the Jan. 1 independence celebrations in Gonaïves. Aristide declined but Duvalier was photographed standing next to Martelly.
The court did not set a date for a final decision in the Duvalier case. Instead, presiding judge Jean Joseph Lebrun appointed colleague Durin Junior Duret to further investigate the allegations of corruption and crimes against humanity. He also wants interviews of all the victims who did not get a chance to testify during the appeals hearings. Duret also must identify others who have been accused of crimes along with Duvalier, and interview all witnesses.
“It’s a remarkable statement of the independence by the judges,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “We’ve seen Jean-Claude Duvalier be invited to presidential events and prancing around the country as if he were a VIP rather than an accused criminal. It’s an important affirmation of the potential of the rule of law.”
Canada’s Chargé d'Affaires Gilles Rivard said while the decision sets a new stage in the judicial process, there is still much work to be done.
“It is only one step, and we need the judicial process to take its course in a transparent and credible way,” Rivard said.
Rivard said Canada strongly believes that Duvalier should stand trial, and that democratic governance and a functioning judiciary are essential to Haiti’s development.
“The case of former President Duvalier represents an opportunity to demonstrate that these important elements are present in Haiti and the Haitian government fulfills its responsibilities by providing, on the one hand, a system of independent and effective justice to its citizens, and the other, a fair trial for those accused of a crime,” Rivard said.