February 1, 2012

HAITI’S JUSTICE SYSTEM, long an instrument of official impunity for the rich, powerful and well-connected, is busy whitewashing the human rights crimes committed under the country’s former dictator and “president for life,” Jean-Claude Duvalier.

On Monday, a Haitian magistrate cleared Mr. Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, of well-documented violations, including extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances, during his bloody reign from 1971 to 1986. The magistrate, Carves Jean, said the statute of limitations blocked prosecution of the human rights crimes, and he ruled that Mr. Duvalier should face trial only on corruption charges.

The decision is a judicial travesty. It is a fist in the face of thousands of Haitian victims and a statement of contempt for international standards of justice, under which the country had a clear obligation to hold Mr. Duvalier to account. It makes clear that Haitian justice remains what it has been for decades: an oxymoron.

The ruling was made with the apparent blessing of President Michel Martelly, the former pop star who has traded his raunchy carnival act for dark suits and the formal bearing of public office.

A number of Mr. Martelly’s allies and ministers have close ties to the Duvalier dictatorship, and the president has devoted himself to airbrushing the old tyrant’s misdeeds since Mr. Duvalier, 60, surprised the world by returning to Haiti a year ago, after a 25-year exile in France. Mr. Martelly has included Mr. Duvalier at official functions, allowed him to ignore an order of house arrest and minimized the horrific crimes of the past. “It is part of the past,” Mr. Martelly told The Post’s William Booth last month. “We need to learn our lessons and move forward.”

In fact, by sweeping the Duvalier-era crimes under the rug, Haiti is assuring that they will fester, further polarizing a country profoundly, and often violently, divided by class, wealth and race.

It also blatantly ignores decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to which Haiti is bound, which has repeatedly held that gross human rights violations are not covered by any statute of limitations or amnesty. As Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch has pointed out, Argentina, Chile, Peru and other countries continue to pursue equally old human rights cases — and in cases involving disappearances, the crime is ongoing since the victims’ fates are unknown.

The victims include hundreds of political prisoners tortured and sometimes lost in Fort Dimanche and two other notorious prisons collectively known as “the triangle of death.” They include those beaten and exiled for crossing Mr. Duvalier and his henchmen. And they include countless others subjected to arbitrary arrests, prolonged jailings and murders at the hands of security forces and shadowy militias loyal to Mr. Duvalier.

To excuse all that is to desecrate Haiti’s history and its people. Other governments — starting with the Obama administration, which has spoken meekly on Mr. Duvalier’s case — should demand justice.