On February 21, 2013, the Haitian Court of Appeals for Port-au-Prince began to hear an appeal challenging the dismissal of human rights charges against former Haitian president-for-life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. CJA authored an amicus brief, signed by twenty-seven other human rights and torture treatment organizations from the Americas and around the world, arguing that Haiti will violate its duties under international and domestic law if it does not move forward with the prosecution.
“Baby Doc must be held to account for his crimes,” said Lexiuste Cajuste, a CJA client who was arbitrarily detained and tortured by Haitian military forces because of his role as a union organizer and pro-democracy activist. “Allowing Duvalier to escape liability for all he has done to innocent Haitians would make a mockery of justice.”
False Starts in the Baby Doc Prosecution: Tribunal of First Instance of Port-au-Prince (2011 – 2012)
This is a signature case about impunity. Upon his return to Haiti in January 2011, after 25 years of exile, Duvalier was arrested on charges of financial corruption. In accordance with Haitian and international law, civil complainants also filed charges of crimes against humanity against Duvalier for his role in summary executions, torture and forced disappearances. However, on January 27, 2012, the judge rejected the request to include human rights abuses and limited the Duvalier prosecution to financial crimes. With minimal analysis, the judge held that Haiti’s 10-year statute of limitations barred charges of crimes against humanity and questioned whether Duvalier could have been prosecuted for such crimes under the law applicable in the 1970s and 1980s.
Court of Appeals of Port-au-Prince (February – May 2013)
CJA’s partners, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), have spent the past two years seeking justice for their clients and have intervened in the financial crimes case on behalf of survivors of human rights abuses. The civil parties filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals of Port-au-Prince. For more about their heroic efforts please click here.
On February 21, 2013, in a last minute bid to derail the proceedings, Duvalier’s attorneys filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Haiti seeking to divest the court of appeals of jurisdiction. The tactic backfired. The court of appeals issued a warrant requiring Duvalier to appear the following week under penalty of arrest. Because the investigating judge had not developed a initial factual record, the court would spend the next 2 months taking testimony.
On the first day of testimony, February 28, the island nation watched as the unimaginable happened: after decades of impunity, Duvalier appeared in court and faced questioning by a three-judge appeals panel. Asked about the torture and killing of political dissidents, Duvalier elided the charges. “Were there deaths and summary executions under your government?” asked Judge Lebrun. “Deaths exist in all countries,” Duvalier replied. “I didn’t intervene in the activities of the police.” Instead, he sought to defend the 1957-1986 dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier: “Upon my return I found a country in ruins and plagued by corruption. It is my turn to ask: what have you done to my country?”
But over the following weeks, witnesses painted a stark portrait of life under the regime. At Duvalier’s command, hundreds of political prisoners, held in a network of three prisons known as the “triangle of death,” died from maltreatment or were victims of extrajudicial killings. Political prisoners often faced interrogation and torture, in which their hands were tied behind their legs and a stick or bar pushed between their limbs. Many political prisoners who entered the triangle of death were never released, and their whereabouts remain unknown to their families.
On March 8, 2013, two survivors testified that they were tortured and detained in horrific conditions for months without charge. “I was able to hear people being beaten, dragged in the hallway,” declared former lawmaker Alix Fils-Aime, imprisoned in Fort Dimanche for 18 months in the 1970s. “I could hear women screaming as they were being forced to have sexual relations with the guards.”
Haitian football legend and human rights defender Robert “Boby” Duval was beaten and starved for 17 months at Fort Dimanche. With 40 prisoners to a cell, Duval watched as scores of detainees died around him: “we counted 180 deceased in the cells . . . When a prisoner died, his body was thrown into a common grave.”
CJA’s Amicus Brief
CJA authored an amicus brief in support of the survivors’ demands that Duvalier face justice for the atrocities that marked his tenure in power. The brief clarifies that crimes against humanity have been universally recognized under international law since 1945 and that these crimes are subject to no statute of limitations: indeed, human rights trials from Chile to Cambodia show that the passage of time does not absolve former leaders of responsibility for atrocities. And since Haiti’s constitution makes international law supreme over national law, Haiti’s statutory limitations for domestic crimes do not bar the prosecution of Duvalier for international crimes, especially where Haiti has a legal duty under the American Convention on Human Rights to investigate and prosecute such crimes. Finally, Haiti can comply with that duty by prosecuting Duvalier under the command responsibility doctrine; since Nuremberg, this principle has been used to hold military and civilian leaders liable for failing to prevent or punish crimes committed by their subordinates.
Twenty-seven other human rights and torture treatment organizations from around the world signed onto CJA’s brief, including: Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma (ASTT), Asian Americans for Community Involvement Center for Survivors of Torture (AACI), Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España (APDHE), Asociatión Pro Derechos Humanos (APRODEH), Canada Haiti Action Network, Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ), Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma (CSTWT), Centro para Acción Legalen Derechos Humanos (CALDH), Comisión Colombiana de Juristas (CCJ), Earth Rights International (ERI), European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH), Global Justice Clinic at the New York University School of Law (GJC), Haiti Action Committee, Human Rights Law Foundation (HRLF), Human Rights Litigation and International Advocacy Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School, Institute for Study of Psychosocial Trauma (ISPT), Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA), International Trauma Studies Program (ITSP), Other Worlds, Program for Torture Victims (PVS), Quixote Center, Survivors of Torture International, TransAfrica Forum, and TRIAL (Swiss Association Against Impunity).
(Photo credit: Rachele Magloire: https://twitter.com/rachmag_2/status/307154284695408640/photo/1)