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Haitian Judges Greenlight Duvalier Atrocity Charges

Milo Milfort

After last Thursday's new court decision against him – a ruling that he can be tried for crimes against humanity –  is Baby Doc discovering that you can’t go home again?

When Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made his stunning return to Haiti in 2011 after 25 years in exile, he probably figured the country was in such a shambles that it wouldn’t have the time, energy or resources to bother with him.

Haiti was dealing with the aftermath of the epic 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people. With a cholera epidemic. With a political crisis. Prosecuting Baby Doc for the alleged embezzlement and human-rights atrocities committed during his 1971-86 dictatorship – after the equally corrupt and brutal 1957-71 dictatorship of his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier – would take a back seat.

But to everyone’s surprise – and to Baby Doc’s chagrin – a Haitian court did bring charges against Duvalier involving the plunder of hundreds of millions of dollars from the coffers of the western hemisphere’s poorest country during his rule.

And yet a year later, to everyone’s shock, a Haitian judge ruled that Duvalier could not be prosecuted for the more serious allegations of crimes against humanity – specifically the torture and murder of government opponents.

Many Haitians, and human-rights groups, complained that President Michel Martelly – who in the past has expressed admiration for the strong hand of the Duvalier regime – was working to block the crimes-against-humanity charges. Martelly denied, but a campaign of international pressure did eventually get the government to hold fuller hearings on the issue that involved many of Duvalier’s alleged victims.

And that in turn led to Thursday’s ruling by a three-judge panel in Haiti that Duvalier can indeed be tried on the human-rights charges.

“Obviously the judges displayed great courage, and the victims,” says Brian Concannon, director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “But I also think an exciting confluence of actors came forward to make this [ruling] possible – human-rights activists, people on the streets in Haiti.”

Duvalier’s lawyers argue that a statute of limitations supposedly etched in Haitian law prevents his prosecution, which was essentially the basis of the 2012 ruling. But this week’s judicial panel disagreed.

Rights advocates like Concannon, meanwhile, say the new ruling is critical for Haiti’s development.

“This is a large step forward in establishing the rule of law in Haiti,” says Concannon, “meaning that you can have a justice system that works for everybody from poor peasants trying to enforce land rights to factory owners trying to enforce contracts. It’s also a very important precedent against political violence.”

Haitian justice officials have not said how they’ll proceed from here.