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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.

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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.

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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?"

IN PICTURES: Baby Doc returns


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