Haiti's Parliament Gets Under Way But Makes No Progress on Amnesty
US troops stand guard as legislators hear Aristide's 7-point agenda
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — MEETING in an extraordinary session for the first time since January, and under the protection of US forces, Haiti's legislators on Wednesday began the slow process of stabilizing their country.
Though the meeting was short, dominated by Senate President Firmin Jean-Louis's long discourse on the events of the last three years, and largely unproductive, just the gathering of these lawmakers - 11 of whom were flown from exile in the United States and Canada - was unusual.
Dozens of members from both the lower House of Deputies and the upper Senate chambers have boycotted parliament for nine months out of fear for their personal safety.
``It feels good to see my country, my colleagues,'' said Sen. Julio Larosiliere. ``But I would be happier if the Haitians had understood how to work out a compromise. I didn't expect to return to see this militarization.''
The only action Wednesday was the reading of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's seven-point agenda for parliament, which includes the separation of the police and military, the formation of a new police academy, and limited amnesty for the military.
The most controversial point is the amnesty bill. According to the agreement signed Sept. 18 between Haiti's de facto president and the US, parliament should vote on an amnesty law by Oct. 15. The stickler is whether the amnesty bill will be restricted to those involved in the 1991 military coup or expanded to a general amnesty that would pardon crimes committed over the last three years, including human- rights abuses.
``To rape your baby and kill your wife, that is not a political crime,'' Sen. Jean Robert Martinez said. ``You have to respect the rights of the people. If you don't do that, you encourage the rights of retribution.''
``I am opposed to a blanket amnesty,'' said Juan Mendez, General Counsel for the US-based group Human Rights Watch. ``It is immoral, illegal to the Haitian Constitution and doesn't reconcile anything.''
Mr. Mendez recommends parliament pass President Aristide's amnesty law, then declare a moratorium on prosecution for human-rights crimes and form a Truth Commission.
``Then, the parliament could have an educated debate because they would have some information,'' he says. ``It shouldn't be an either/or thing - what we need is reconciliation so this country can continue to move ahead.''
Thousands of Haitians climbed trees and teetered on fences to cheer the arrival of the legislators, while 600 US soldiers stood at attention with their assault weapons poised around the Legislative Palace.
One deputy, Gabriel Sanon, known for his anti-Aristide tirades, stood outside parliament, denouncing the US troops, saying he would ``never go inside as long as there is an occupation.''
Whereas Mr. Sanon could have gone in but didn't, access to parliamentarians known here as the ``Jan. 18'' group is forbidden. ``Jan. 18'' is a popular term that refers to those lawmakers elected on that day in 1992 under the government of then-Prime Minister Marc Bazin, who was the second prime minister named by the military government after they ousted elected Aristide three years ago today. The senators are considered illegitimate because the elections, though regularly scheduled, were poorly attended and thought to be rigged.
After the Governors Island Accord, brokered between Aristide and Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras in July 1993, the Jan. 18 senators and deputies agreed to step down until a committee formed in accordance with the Haitian Constitution determined their legitimacy.
But along with other provisions in the accord that fell by the wayside when General Cedras refused to leave office by the Oct. 30 deadline, that committee was never formed, nor was the fate of the Jan. 18 lawmakers ever decided. In February, the de facto senators participated in the ratifying Bernard Sansaricq as the new Senate President, ousting the democratically elected Senate President, Mr. Jean-Louis.
But Jean-Louis presided at Wednesday's session, which squeezed out a quorum from the attendance of 11 of 17 senators and 54 of 79 deputies. Senator Sansaricq was absent in protest of the presence of US troops.
The debate in congress reflects the problems of reconciliation that have divided this country for decades. Many questions linger on: Will two warring factions inside parliament be able to work together for the good of the country? Will the de facto Senate president vacate his office to make room for Jean-Louis?
Only time will tell.