Reinstatement of criminal case against Duvalier a momentous victory for Haitians

The Appellate Court decision last month to reinstate political violence crimes against former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was a momentous victory for Haitians all over the world. The court courageously challenged the impunity of the justice system, but also applied international human rights law to protect poor people for the first time in Haiti’s history.

This historic win was finally sinking in as I left the Duvalier court room on that day with Haitian lawyer Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). With an ear-to-ear grin, Joseph declared the hearing “une victoire totale” (total victory).

Jean-Claude Duvalier, one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th Century, became President of Haiti in 1971following the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Gaining power at the age of 19, Jean-Claude soon asserted control over the repressive regime created by his father and remained in power until overthrown in 1986. In January 2011 he returned to Haiti from 25 years of exile in France and within days criminal charges for political violence, embezzlement and corruption were filed against him.

A magistrate judge, newly appointed to the case by President Michel Martelly, upheld the financial criminal charges in January 2012, but dismissed the political violence crimes upon the recommendation of the government prosecutor, another Presidential appointee, on the basis that they were past Haiti’s ten-year statute of limitations. Both sides appealed the split decision.

From December 13, 2012 through May 16, 2013, the Port-au-Prince Court of Appeals held weekly hearings. The three-judge panel listened to testimony from Duvalier and eight of his victims who had been arrested, deported, imprisoned and, in some cases, tortured.

Meanwhile, Duvalier traveled around Port-au-Prince a free man (I saw him on several occasions) and dined in fancy restaurants. President Martelly presented Duvalier at public events as an elder statesman, and has even renewed his diplomatic passport.

On February 20, 2014, after nine months of virtual silence on the case, the Appellate Court reinstated the political violence charges against Duvalier. The Court held that under international law, to which Haiti is bound, a statute of limitations does not apply to crimes against humanity. One of the three appellate judges that issued the ruling will reopen the investigation and interview relevant witnesses and those accused of the crimes. The judge’s report will be considered by the Court, who will then decide whether Duvalier should stand trial.

According to the BAI’s Joseph, who represents victims in the case, “the Court’s ruling applying crimes against humanity against Duvalier is a significant step towards combating impunity in Haiti’s justice system.” The Haitian Constitution of 1987, section 276.2, gives the court the power to use international law to protect victims of human rights violations. But this is the first time that a Haitian court has invoked international law to protect the poor. Joseph says that he hopes “that judges and lawyers consult this decision to end two centuries of impunity brought by our 1835 penal and criminal procedure codes.”

Given that several lawyers and judges who challenged government corruption and impunity through the court system have recently received death threats, and faced police surveillance and false criminal charges, the Court’s decision is also courageous. Underscoring the importance of the ruling, Joseph speaks from experience. Following months of death threats, in 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights awarded precautionary measures “to guarantee the life and physical integrity” of Joseph in response to a report by a former prosecutor that the Minister of Justice ordered his unlawful arrest and the closure of the BAI.

There were other legal victories during the appellate hearings. First, after several hearings with aggressive argument from the both sides’ lawyers, the court forced Duvalier to testify about his actions as dictator for the first time in an open courtroom packed with victims of his regime and journalists.

Secondly, this is a victory for the survivors of Duvalier’s brutal regime whose hard work and patience brought Duvalier to justice. In particular, the Haitian Collective Against Impunity played a key role in legal strategy and media communication, and helped pack the courtroom every week with survivors and their supporters.

Lastly, the international human rights community, including Amnesty International, the Center for Justice and Accountability, and Human Rights Watch prepared reports, amicus briefs and press statements that educated the Court and reminded Haiti of its international legal obligations to prosecute Duvalier. The Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued statements supporting the Duvalier prosecution. Notably absent from the chorus of support, unfortunately, was the United States Government.

Joseph acknowledges that we have a lot of work ahead of us. We won the battle, but not the war. The Appellate Court’s decision will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, which has been stacked with President Martelly appointees. Support for justice in this case must be strengthened in and out of Haiti to limit the government’s undue influence on the courts. Visibility will also help keep these brave Appellate Court judges safe.

But for now, we rejoice in the victories.

Nicole Phillips is based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and is a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and law professor at the Univeristé de la Fondation Dr. Aristide (UNIFA). For more information on IJDH’s work on the Jean-Claude Duvalier prosecution, click here.