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Aristide Granted Temporary Asylum in South Africa - 2004-05-13

The South African government has agreed to give temporary asylum to former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The decision comes several days after South Africa received a formal request from the ousted Haitian leader, and has sparked criticism from South African opposition parties.

A South African government spokesman says the cabinet approved a request to give the former Haitian leader a temporary home until the political situation in Haiti stabilizes enough for him to return.

The government has steered away from the term asylum, but analysts say that is essentially what it is.

Senior analyst Steven Friedman of the Center for Policy Studies says South Africa has agreed to shelter Mr. Aristide because it strongly believes that he was unconstitutionally removed from power.

Mr. Friedman says Haiti is a country with great symbolic importance for many South Africans.

"There is an important symbolic message which Haiti sends out, which President Mbeki has mentioned," he noted. "It was the first independent black-ruled republic and has not turned out particularly well, and that is obviously a message which South Africans have to take seriously. And secondly, I repeat that Aristide remains an absolutely vital player if there is going to be a democratic outcome in Haiti."

The government spokesman says South Africa will be financially responsible for Mr. Aristide's residence and upkeep while he is in the country.

South Africa's largest opposition party has objected to giving the Haitian leader asylum, saying South African taxpayers should not have to support him. The opposition also criticizes Mr. Aristide's human rights record.

But Mr. Friedman of the Center for Policy Studies says the opposition party has taken an overly simplistic view of the situation.

"Well, I think first of all it is reflecting a very widely held view about Haiti that I think is misconceived. And that widely held view is that Aristide is just another dictator who subverted the democratic process and oppressed Haitian people," he said. "And I think that's a severe misreading of the situation. He is not an angel. But he was just about the only politician in the history of Haiti to win a free and fair election, and I think that needs to be taken seriously."

The South African government says it has consulted not only with the African Union and the Caribbean regional organization CARICOM, but also with the United States and France, which agree that South Africa should offer Mr. Aristide a temporary home.

The Haitian leader fled to the Central African Republic in late February after an armed revolt in Haiti. He is currently in Jamaica. South Africa says it is not sure when he will be arriving here, but one local newspaper says it could be as early as next week.