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Human Rights

Haiti's ex-dictator gets his day in court

Jean-Claude Duvalier has dodged trial three times. Now, Haiti's ex-dictator, also known as "Baby Doc," stands trial - on charges of corruption. Victims of his regime want him charged with human rights abuses.

Haiti's ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier

Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier

"Doesn't Haiti have enough trouble in trying to get back on its feet again, without having to deal with an ex-dictator?" Reed Brody asked in the American daily "The Miami Herald." Brody is an expert on Haiti with the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW). It's a rhetorical question, yet the answer is "no."

Despite being rhetorical, the question still reflects two differing attitudes among Haiti's population: young Haitians are scarcely interested in former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier, while older Haitians want to see him convicted for human rights crimes.

That a Haitian ex-president must even appear in court is a historical event, said Brazilian political scientist Antonio Jorge Ramalho. "But most Haitians are struggling just to survive or trying to ensure a future for themselves," he said. Also, as in many poor countries, Haiti's population is very young. Most Haitians weren't even alive when Duvalier left the country in 1986.

Haiti's President Michel Martelly and former Prime Minister Garry Conille

Haiti's current President Michel Martelly (left) and former Prime Minister Garry Conille are said to have been close to the Duvalier regime

Duvalier lived in France until 2011, at which point he unexpectedly moved back to Haiti. He may have speculated that Haitians were more concerned about maintaining their existence just one year after the devastating earthquake. Also, the country was enmeshed in an utterly chaotic presidential election, where the sole candidate who emerged was a former Duvalier supporter.

Duvalier likely believed he could return to his country unchallenged. But he was wrong. Just a day after his return, the public prosecutors' office brought against him charges of corruption, embezzlement and larceny. Duvalier was summoned several times, but declined to appear in court. Now, the court has ordered the ex-dictator's appearance.

Thief or murderer?

Yet the hearing, taking place on February 28, 2013, will not yet determine whether Duvalier will be imprisoned. Currently, a maximum sentence of five years is on the table. This first hearing is to determine whether additional charges shall be brought against him.

That is what older Haitians are interested in. They are the ones who suffered under Duvalier's regime from 1971 to 1986, when he was overthrown. And they are also the ones demanding that he be held responsible for alleged human rights abuses.

HRW spokesperson Brody, who was formerly the United Nations human rights commissioner for Haiti, is all too familiar with Duvalier's crimes. He is personally acquainted with many of the former dictator's victims and their families, and his own documentary gives them the space and opportunity to discuss Duvalier's tactics of torture and murder.

Bobby Duval is one of those victims, having spent 17 months in a "Baby Doc" prison, where he saw 180 people die during that period.

The Duvalier regimes

Francois Duvalier, aka Papa Doc

Francois Duvalier, or "Papa Doc," established the violent regime at the end of the 1950s

Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited his nickname "Baby Doc" from his father - just as he did rule over Haiti. François Duvalier was elected president in 1957, having earned his own nickname "Papa Doc" as a physician while battling epidemics in the country.

But as President, Duvalier senior fought political opponents, and was about to consolidate power considerably before handing it over to his 19-year-old son shortly before his death in 1971.

Baby Doc carried on with the apparently criminal regime of his father: together, both of the Duvaliers are supposedly responsible - either directly or indirectly - for 40,000 to 60,000 deaths in 29 years of rule. Countless other people were victims of torture and other forms of repression.

"It wasn't just about clearing out political opponents from the picture," said political scientist Antonio Jorge Ramalho of the University of Brasilia. "The mass population was also supposed to be intimidated."

The perfidious system pitted the Black middle and lower classes and the mulatto upper class against one another. The senior Duvalier recruited his bodyguards from the poor population: the "Tonton Macoutes" - named after a mythical Haitian bogeyman who put unruly children in a gunnysack and carted them off to be eaten for breakfast - were notorious for their ruthless intimidation tactics and complete obedience to their leader, Duvalier. The dictator paid salaries only to chief officers; he granted lower-level officers the privilege of blackmailing people for protection money.

"Supporters of the dictatorship emphasized that a certain order prevailed during this time," Ramalho said. That appealed to the goodwill of the West, and helped to boost tourism. "It was enough to keep the small middle class and the even smaller upper class in line," Ramalho noted. But most of the Haitian population wanted none of this, he added.

Luxurious exile in France

Under Duvalier junior, Haiti remained the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Also because Baby Doc systematically robbed his people: according to estimates, Jean-Claude Duvalier managed to accumulate a fortune of half a billion dollars, moving it out of the country before having to flee an uprising in 1986.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Haiti remains an incredibly poor country

This fortune allowed him to live a life of luxury, unchallenged, for more than a quarter century in France. He is reported to have spent most of his time in a villa on the Côte d'Azur, but apparently owned several residences in and around Paris.

Baby Doc has refuted all of these charges, denying that he ever ordered the murdering of people and claiming that his wealth is a mere myth.

Demand for justice

Yet Haitian victims' organizations and activists have a clear goal: they want to focus on the human rights issue - not only in court, but also within collective memory. The Duvaliers are not even mentioned in Haitian history books. That is why former victim Bobby Duval and his fellow campaigners tell also young people about the crimes of the regime.

But above all they are demanding that Duvalier be convicted for his human rights crimes. "There will be a turning point in history only when he has to go behind bars," Ramalho said.

And Brody provided an answer to his original question himself: "Holding Duvalier accountable and ensuring a fair trial would show that the Haitian state is still able to function."

DW.DE