Haiti’s former dictator, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, surprised critics yesterday when he showed up in court to answer questions to determine whether he could be prosecuted for human rights abuses dating back to his 1971- 1986 regime.
Mr. Duvalier missed three previous court dates, and was threatened with jail if he missed the fourth. But according to his party spokesperson, Duvalier heeded yesterday’s summons to the Port-au-Prince courtroom because he wanted “to show the Haitian people no one is above the law.”
His day in court brought him face to face for the first time with a handful of the estimated thousands of people his regime allegedly tortured over the course of his 15-year rule. He is accused of multiple human rights abuses, including murder and torture, but his presence in court yesterday raised hopes for some that Haiti’s pattern of privileging the elite amid corruption and instability may be slowly changing tack.
“I cannot even interpret the event, this has never happened before in my country,” says Andre, a student, standing in the dusty streets of Port au Prince, referring to the common practice of Haitian elites and politicians not being held accountable by the country’s justice system.
‘Law is paper’
Plagued by extreme levels of poverty and natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake that the Haitian government estimates killed 316,000, Haiti faces numerous challenges to strengthening all institutions, not just the justice system. There’s a well known Creole proverb here: “lwa se papye, bayonet se fe,” which translates to “law is paper, bayonets are iron," and for much of Haiti's history violence has prevailed.
Duvalier, who was just 19 when he succeeded his father François “Papa Doc” Duvalier as “president for life,” is accused of corruption and repression, among other human rights abuses. Like his father, he relied on a private militia known as the Tonton Macoutes to enforce his rule, but in 1986 he was forced out of office by a popular uprising. Duvalier fled to France in exile.
“The rule of the gun, of money, and of political power has prevailed” in Haiti, says William G. O’Neill, a human rights lawyer and former senior adviser to the United Nations.
Just weeks ago, the International Crisis Group warned that Haiti could become “a permanent failed state” due to its “failure of will” on many counts, including rule of law.
“There really is no model for justice,” says Nicole Phillips, a staff attorney at the Haitian public interest law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux.
Haiti’s justice system is based on the French civil system, yet despite two decades of judicial reform initiatives spearheaded by the UN and the Organization of American States, the penal code has not been updated since 1835, Ms. Phillips says.
“[A] technical fix to codes, constitutions, and regulations, with a healthy dash of training and logistical support” has not been able to overcome a deeply ingrained system of preference and elitism in Haiti, Mr. O’Neill says.
Phillips agrees. “Court fees and lawyers are too expensive for the poor to afford. Proceedings are conducted in French, which most Haitians do not speak. Elitist legal training conditions lawyers, judges, and prosecutors to give preferential treatment to the powerful while they discount the causes, testimonies, and legal needs of the poor,” she says.
The question of equality
One may not need look further than the Baby Doc case as an example of inequality in Haitian society and the justice system, observers say.
“Nothing has been done to remind the new generation of Haitians of Duvalier atrocities,” says historian Michel Soukar, who lectures at universities throughout Haiti. And Haitians have watched as Duvalier and his cronies “never paid for their crimes,” he says. In fact, many Haitians still speak fondly of the Duvalier era, when the streets were safe, movie theaters existed, and there was a plentiful supply of electricity.
“We [the Haitian people] hope that the judicial system will stay independent so that in the future, we will do things a different way,” Mr. Soukar says.
Duvalier’s court appearance came on the same day Haiti’s government ordered the arrest of a senior government official on undisclosed corruption charges. Some say the arrest may have been an attempt to show the international community that Haiti is striving to be more accountable.
According to Jean Joseph Exumé, a former minister of justice and public security, and the lawyer for 10 of Duvalier’s alleged victims, “The case will take time but the fact that he came to court at all gives people hope.”