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Release of Former Haitian Paramilitary Leader Draws Condemnation

  • Amy Bracken

In Haiti, the recent release of an imprisoned former paramilitary leader has drawn condemnation from diplomats and human rights activists. Many Haitians are expressing cynicism, saying their country, with its history of violence and extreme poverty, has never had justice. Some are skeptical that November elections will bring significant change.

Louis Jodel Chamblain was a co-leader of the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH, a paramilitary group blamed for thousands of killings during the military dictatorship that took over after driving President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 1991.

Mr. Chamblain fled Haiti seeking exile in the Dominican Republic after U.S. forces disbanded FRAPH and restored Mr. Aristide to the presidency three years later.

He was convicted in absentia for the murder of a pro-Aristide businessman and for ordering the massacre of an estimated two dozen Aristide supporters in the northern town of Gonaives.

In February 2004, as gang members and former soldiers swept through the country, killing police officers and calling for Mr. Aristide's ouster, Mr. Chamblain returned to Haiti to join their rebellion, which led to Mr. Aristide's resignation and exile.

Under Haitian law, those convicted in absentia are entitled to a retrial, and in April of last year, Mr. Chamblain turned himself in to Haitian police.

His convictions were overturned, but he remained behind bars during an investigation into charges that he was responsible for the burning of a section of the Aristide stronghold slum, Cite Soleil, in 1993. This month, the courts declared there was not enough evidence to keep him in jail, and he was released.

In the northern town of Cap-Haitien, where rebels patrolled the streets until they were driven out by U.N. peacekeepers last spring, reactions to Mr. Chamblain's release were mixed.

Lucner Obas, a 26-year-old farmer, said it illustrates how bad the system is.

"Naturally, it's proof we don't have justice in Haiti, because the process was never completed," he said. "Chamblain was accused, and the process was badly done on the correctional, as well as the judicial level."

Mr. Obas believes Mr. Chamblain's decision to turn himself in was part of a plan.

"It was a sort of charade. Everyone can see that, even a baby," he said.

Meanwhile, Yvon Neptune, who was prime minister under Mr. Aristide, remains in jail. He was arrested in June 2004, on charges he ordered the killing of anti-Aristide activists in the coastal town of St. Marc during the February 2003 uprising.

Haitians remain deeply divided between supporters and opponents of Mr. Aristide's Lavalas party. Mr. Obas is among those who is angered by the ex-prime minister's continuing imprisonment.

"On the subject of the former prime minister, Yvon Neptune, the people in general, and the justice system as well, must demand his liberation," he said. "The incarceration of Mr. Neptune is a crime."

Members of the U.S. Congress have repeatedly called for Mr. Neptune's release, calling his detention politically motivated and a human rights violation.

In his final news conference before leaving his post in Haiti this month, U.S. Ambassador James Foley called Mr. Chamblain's release a "scandal," particularly while Mr. Neptune remains in jail without the presentation of any evidence against him.

As under former President Aristide, the vast majority of Haitians behind bars have not yet been tried, and many go months before seeing a judge.

A 36-year-old taxi-driver, who refused to give his name for fear of being targeted, said it was too dangerous to comment on Mr. Neptune, but he called the Chamblain release fair.

"If someone's going to turn himself in, and in a country like this, where it's particularly easy to go to jail and hard to get out, it must be because they didn't find he had done anything wrong, and he must be liberated," he said.

Yet, like many Haitians, the driver has little faith in his country's justice system and believes elections planned for November will make little difference, saying previous elections were not seen as credible. He also criticized the international community, the United States and former colonial power France, in particular.

"Generally, we're never going to have justice in Haiti," the driver said. " We're never going to have it because although we have laws they are not respected, you know? And elections. I don't think we'll ever have elections in Haiti. We've never had elections and we never will have elections in Haiti. Even if there are people elected, it's always a selection."

A transitional government has been running Haiti since early 2004, and elections have been set for November, but logistical problems have delayed voter registration, and pessimism about elections is widespread. Potential voters cite the problems of violence, particularly in the nation's capital, and widespread apathy about the candidates.

To Jean-Louis, a 27-year-old unemployed technician who declined to give his last name, Haitians are too concerned about putting food on their tables to worry about elections or what goes on in the courts.

"What matters is social justice, because, you see, really, there is a gap in the society between those with the economic means to live and those without," he said. "And that's a form of injustice for people who don't have, because, essentially, that causes all the problems of insecurity across the country now… Is the country prepared for elections? I don't really think so, considering the level of security we must have by October."

Local elections scheduled for October have been postponed until December, with presidential and Parliamentary elections planned for November. Mr. Aristide's still popular Lavalas party is split on whether to participate.