Duvalier on Trial: Justice or Joke?
By Beverly Bell
Twenty-seven years later, the unimaginable has become real. Former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has been brought to trial for crimes against humanity.
Will justice finally arrive for the hundreds of thousands who were murdered, tortured, imprisoned, beaten, savaged, and degraded by him and his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier?
Camille Chalmers, director of the Haitian Platform for Alternative Development in Haiti (PAPDA), said in an interview, “Of course you can’t get a fair trial against Duvalier in this country. The political system and government we have can’t judge him. First, the culture of impunity is being reinforced as we speak. Second, Duvalier is the source of the government’s inspiration. To judge Duvalier is a bit like judging itself.”
Yet the very fact of the trial is a legal as well as moral victory for many survivors and human rights advocates, the product of many years of intensive advocacy. Lelenne Gilles, who was a youth and community organizer under Duvalier and who now serves as assistant director of programs for the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (Le Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains), told me, “The trial against Duvalier is historic, the first time in our history that victims are bringing a former dictator to trial. That is very important for justice. It’s very important for everyone who might ever contemplate returning the country to dictatorship. This trial makes clear that there’s a limit they cannot cross.”
Papa Doc came to power in a rigged election in 1957, and began establishing the most brutal regime in Haiti’s history, and one of the most brutal in Latin American history. In 1971, he transferred power to his 19-year-old son, who claimed the same title of “President-for-Life” and continued the repression and corruption.
The US’s support of both Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier was unbroken except for a brief period under John Kennedy. The support included military aid for a state that was not at war, except against its own people.
Citizens employed daily resistance, countless acts of noncompliance that usually flew below the radar. From time to time, revolutionaries attempted insurrections from within or invasions from without, only to be rounded up and killed, sometimes along with all members of their families. Periodically the underground opposition broke open into a free-speech or human-rights movement. Many of the Haitians flung into exile - who would eventually reach about a million - were also active parts of the resistance.
In 1983, two exiled Haitians, an American priest, and I started the first international human rights organization dedicated to Haiti, Washington Office on Haiti, to mobilize opposition to the dictatorship. We filled reports and articles with stories of Duvalier’s abuses; pressured the administration along with the US Congressional Black Caucus; and did whatever we could to raise attention, outrage, and action. The vicious regime’s reach was long; the executions and torture filled my own waking days and dreaming nights for years.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came when the Tonton Macoutes, the despot’s personal henchmen, gunned down three youth in the town of Gonaïves in late 1985. The latent fury and clandestine organizing overflowed into a crashing torrent of rebellion, with strikes and daily protests and refusal to be quieted or governed. The regime survived by a mere 10 weeks.
When, during those weeks, the widespread resistance made it clear that the autocracy was doomed, the US finally pulled its support. Wanting to preempt the ascendance of a left-wing government, the US flew Duvalier to France aboard one of its own airplanes on February 7, 1986, and then installed a military junta the next day. Haiti continued to be what people called “Duvalierism without Duvalier,” with illegal regimes and military juntas, all US-supported, following one after the other. At last, in 1990, Haiti had its first democratic elections.
On January 16, 2011, Duvalier returned to Haiti, likely to try to liberate $6 million in stolen assets from his frozen bank account in Switzerland. He appeared to have been trying to beat a Swiss law, dubbed the “Duvalier law,” which was to go into effect on February 1, making it easier for Switzerland to seize the funds. Instead, three days later, the Préval government charged him with corruption and embezzlement and placed him under house arrest. Duvalier defied his detention to zip around town in a luxury automobile and eat at elegant restaurants high in the hills.
On Trial, If Not Actually In Court
The government of Michel Martelly, which took power through a fraudulent election in May 2011, is closely allied to Duvalier in ideology and personnel. A number of former Duvalier officials have been recycled into Martelly’s reign, and Duvalier’s own son serves as a Martelly advisor. The government even granted Duvalier a diplomatic passport.
The government stopped pursuing the case, and Martelly even talked about granting Duvalier amnesty. The chief prosecutor recommended that all charges be dropped. In 2012, another judge ruled that Duvalier could not be prosecuted for crimes against humanity because the statute of limitation had expired under Haitian law, though he could still be tried for embezzlement. The survivors appealed the dismissal to the appellate court on the basis that under international law, to which Haiti is bound, crimes against humanity like kidnapping, torture and murder do not have statutes of limitation. The appellate court is currently hearing the argument of the victims, who are represented by the International Lawyers’ Office (BAI by its French acronym) and the law firm of Jean-Joseph Exumé.
Duvalier failed to appear for the first three hearings, held every Thursday. When he was threatened with arrest, he showed up to testify on February 28. He claimed that “I have a positive record and this is in all areas,” and that “Murders exist in all countries.” He said that Fort Dimanche – Haiti’s most notorious death chamber, the site of the torture and near-death of many of those bringing charges – had been filled with “delinquents” and “drug dealers.”
Duvalier was subsequently struck with the epidemic that affects former dictators when they are brought to trial, and claimed he was hospitalized. Thus he was absent during the two hearings when survivors took the stand.
Among the first to testify, among the 30 or so who brought charges, was soccer coach Robert (Bobby) Duval. We had worked closely together toward the restoration of democracy when he was in exile, during the first coup d’état against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991-94). Bobby is a font of anger and courage. The founder of the League of Former Haitian Political Prisoners, he carries his imprisonment with him like a scar. Bobby testified about his seventeen months at Fort Dimanche and the National Penitentiary during 1976 and 1977. He was never charged with a crime or brought to trial, nor ever told why he had been arrested. He told the court, “I never knew why I was of interest to the regime.”
During his eight months at Fort Dimanche, Bobby estimated that he saw or heard 180 corpses being taken away, killed either through execution, torture, or starvation. The same woven banana-leaf mats on which the victims had slept became their burial shroud. The bodies were hauled off in a wooden cart and dropped into a hole in the ground behind the prison. Each time, other prisoners sang a funeral dirge from their cells.
Normally a bear of a man, Bobby estimated that he lost 90 pounds during his detention. When he was transferred to another jail, he said, he walked past a mirror and didn’t realize that the person he saw was himself until after the fact. He was continually threatened with torture but for some reason never was.
Bobby was on the verge of death from starvation and illness when Jimmy Carter was elected president of the US. Though Carter’s administration continued supporting Duvalier, still he sent a commission to Haiti in February of 1977 to demand it free 13 political prisoners. Ten of the 13 were already dead. While being sent to Fort Dimanche was usually a death sentence, with most prisoners ending up in that hole in the ground, Bobby and the two others made it out alive.
During Bobby’s and others’ testimony, the judges were often distracted, asking questions that had already been answered and, at times, intervening more to demand respect and deference than to probe the case. They appeared highly interested in hurrying through their Thursdays in the hot, crowded chamber. When Bobby began naming other prisoners who had been in the cell with him, a judge told him he was going into too much detail. The same judge asked another witness, Alix Fils-Aimé, after about thirty minutes of testimony, if he couldn’t “just give a summary” of his abuse and imprisonment because “otherwise we’ll be here all day.”
Some human rights lawyers at the proceedings reported feeling that the judges were respectful and engaged with certain witnesses. Some of the judges’ questions, such as “Did you ever see anyone tortured to death?” elicited key testimony.
The Public Minister, who works with the prosecution supposedly for the public good, appeared sympathetic to Duvalier when he testified, helping him make excuses. In one instance, she asked Duvalier if he believed he were mature enough, at 19, to rule a country. He responded that he hadn’t felt he had the strength, and that he had told his father no.
One of Duvalier’s lawyers was the son of the despot’s minister of justice. The defense team created a circus act, trying to disrupt the proceedings and intimidate witnesses by shouting at the opposing team, and even the judges. Their points were usually absurd. They asked Bobby such questions as whether he had gone to visit Duvalier to offer thanks for his release, whether he was part of a group of people setting people on fire “for their political convictions” after Duvalier’s departure, and whether he was “accusing the Haitian police and government of being controlled by the US State Department.” The defense asked plaintiff Fils-Aimé if he had been growing marijuana when he was arrested. A lawyer asked plaintiff Nicole Magloire if, when she said she was opposed to Duvalier’s anti-communist law, “she was above the laws of the republic, which were an assertion of the power of the state.” He asked, furthermore, if she had been having “intimate relations” with an army commander.
An order from the court will likely come out in the next several weeks. Whoever wins, the decision will surely be appealed.
Justice has long been deferred. Let us hope it is not denied.
With thanks to Nicole Phillips of the International Lawyers’ Office (BAI, by its French acronym) and Lelenne Gilles of National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH).
Stay tuned for Beverly Bell’s new book, Fault Lines: Views across Haiti’s Divide, coming out in June from Cornell University Press. Read more from Other Worlds here, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance and of the forthcoming Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.
Copyleft Beverly Bell. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.