How strong are charges against Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier? Very, say experts.

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (aka 'Baby Doc') was charged in court Tuesday with embezzlement, corruption, and misappropriation of funds. 'It’s fairly easy to pursue legally,' says one expert.

By , Correspondents

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    Haiti's ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (c.) gestures to supporters as police take him out of his hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Jan. 18. Haitian police took Duvalier, who abruptly returned to Haiti on Sunday, out of his hotel to a waiting SUV without saying whether he was being detained for crimes committed under his brutal regime.
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During his 15 years in power, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier is said to have brazenly robbed Haiti’s treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars.

He is accused of going as far as stealing checks intended for the poor to help him amass hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign accounts that allowed him to live luxuriously while in exile.

But the same disregard for the law that made him a multimillionaire could make the case against him relatively easy to prosecute, observers tell the Monitor.

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“He was fairly careful to hide the assets abroad, but he was not that careful to hide the way he acquired them,” says Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). “I am confident that this case can be prosecuted, it’s fairly easy to pursue legally because it’s been documented.”

IN PICTURES: Baby Doc returns

Dramatically detained and formally charged in court on Tuesday by Haitian authorities, just two days after unexpectedly returning from exile, Mr. Duvalier’s future is now being weighed by a judge who will decide whether to pursue the accusations of embezzlement, corruption, and misappropriation of funds, among other alleged crimes. The process could take months.

“His fate is now in the hands of the investigating judge. We have brought charges against him,” Aristidas Auguste, Port-au-Prince's chief prosecutor, told reporters Tuesday.

Supporters: Duvalier is innocent

Gervais Charles, an attorney who has represented Duvalier in the past, confirmed the case had been filed but said a statute of limitations had expired, which would make void any charges. Duvalier was freed but he had no passport to travel, Mr. Charles told reporters. Haitian officials did not address Charles’s statute of limitations claims, the Associated Press reported.

"What will happen to [Duvalier] is entirely the responsibility of [President René] Préval and his executive cabinet," Duvalier spokesman Henry Robert Sterlin told reporters Tuesday. "What those in power want is the destabilization of the country."

At the end of the day, Duvalier returned to the posh Karibe Hotel in the Petionville neighborhood, which had served as the backdrop for a dramatic scene that morning when police entered Duvalier’s room as a small contingent of his supporters gathered in front of the hotel, yelling “the revolution is going to start” and “arrest Préval,” a reference to the unpopular president.

Duvalier's return ticket to France was reportedly booked for Thursday, though he must remain in country for at least as long as the case investigation period.

His continued presence will likely be welcome news to supporters that gathered Tuesday, many who were too young to remember Duvalier in power. They seemed drawn by nostalgia and embellished memories of the Duvalier era, which lasted for nearly 30 years. “Baby Doc” Duvalier became the round-faced successor to the regime when he took over from his father at the age of 19.

“I came here for President Duvalier, who left Haiti 25 years ago and I’m happy he came back,” says Pierre Willy, a protester who gathered in downtown Port-au-Prince to support Duvalier. “All these people that were killed, it wasn’t Duvalier that did it. He was just the son of a president then.”

'Vital' case to pursue

A case against the former dictator might proceed slowly, but it's an important one to try, says Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch and a former prosecutor in Haiti. "It is vital that the Haitian authorities pursue this kind of case because it could show Haitians that the state still functions," Mr. Brody says.

Haiti's justice system was already weak before the destructive earthquake. "Prosecuting the case could potentially be transformative" for the justice system, he says, adding that cases in the United States and Switzerland have already laid out evidence against Duvalier.

Duvalier left Haiti in 1986 after 15 tyrannical years leading the country he took over from his father in 1971. During that time, he allegedly oversaw the torture and murder of political opponents and robbed public funds.

In the late 1980s, at the behest of the Haitian government, a US accounting firm studied the government’s books and determined Duvalier stole at least $300 million. “That was a conservative estimate,” says Concannon of the Boston-based IJDH. “Nobody knows for sure how much he took. We know it was hundreds of millions.” (Editor's note: A member of IJDH's board of directors was a longtime lawyer for exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a political opponent of Duvalier.)

A civil case that went through Florida courts in 1998 with a judgment against Duvalier awarded Haitians $504 million. The money was never recovered.

Life of luxury in France

Duvalier landed in France in 1986 after he was overthrown and started to live the life of a wealth celebrity, says Elizabeth Abbott, author of “Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy.”

“He lived lavishly, like a really wealthy person, spending thousands for meals and clothes and other things,” Ms. Abbott says.

Duvalier had a residence outside Paris, a villa in the French Riviera, speedboats, and sports cars in the first years after he settled in France, according to Abbott and press reports. But after he and his ex-wife Michele divorced in 1992, his fortune reportedly dwindled.

He reportedly failed to pay rents, ran up a massive hotel bill, and moved to a modest two-bedroom Paris apartment paid for by loyal Duvalierists. Then, in January 2010, the Swiss government froze $4.6 million in Swiss bank accounts held by Duvalier.

“He burned through most of it and then the judgment froze the rest,” Abbott says. “He’s been living very modestly for several years now.”

Important test for Haiti's justice system

Even if the case against him can’t recover any of the money Duvalier stole, pursuing the charges represents an important step in strengthening the Haitian justice system and closing an ugly chapter in the country’s history, observers say.

When Duvalier fled to France in a US military jet in 1986, he brought to a close three decades of dictatorial rule in which tens of thousands of suspected dissidents and other innocent Haitians were murdered. Duvalier and his father, “Papa Doc,” used a secret police called the "Tonton Macoutes" to squash political movements and torture opponents.

“In a legal sense and in a political sense, it’s important that this trial against him move forward,” says Bernice Robertson, the International Crisis Group’s representative in Port-au-Prince. “What would it say if someone widely accused of these human rights violations were allowed to return freely to the country?"

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