Haitian earthquake upends country's criminal justice system
Sunday, February 7, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Haiti's criminal justice system was brought to a standstill by last month's earthquake, which leveled the capital city's courthouse. But crime did not stop, and that has left police commanders with jail cells full of frustrated inmates who have not been given a chance to go before a judge.
At the main police station, which was damaged by the quake, more than half of the 81 prisoners are being housed in a makeshift cell set up in a small courtyard. It is a pit of anger and squalor. With 46 people crowded inside, there is no room to lie down and no reason to think that would be safe.
"It's hell. H-E-L-L," Bouzy Archange Jr. said from behind bars. "I'm in hell."
A few steps behind him, two younger inmates began to swing at each other. "They are fighting all the time," Archange said. "You have to watch yourself."
Like many in the cell, Archange had been there longer than the 48 hours allowed under Haitian law. In his case, it had been three days since he was arrested, accused of stealing a police officer's uniform.
But since the earthquake crippled the government, the rules don't exactly apply.
"You have to understand it's a crisis," the station's commissioner, Michel Ange Gedeon, said as he sat in a police vehicle a few steps from the outdoor cell. "We can't do anything."
Administering justice is one of countless government functions that have been upended by the quake, which killed more than 150,000 and laid ruin to much of downtown Port-au-Prince.
In addition to the courthouse, which was known as the Palace of Justice, the headquarters of the Ministry of Justice was also felled. More than a dozen employees perished. Buried in the rubble with them were troves of vital documents that officials are trying to recover or re-create.
In a country that has struggled to control crime, the need for a functioning criminal justice system is not lost on officials. They have been looking at sites that could temporarily house court hearings, and they are scheduled to meet with judges this week to map out a plan for resuming some basic judicial functions.
"We're doing the best we can," said Antoine André, the Justice Ministry's director general, who was named to his post hours before the earthquake struck.
Until the court system is back in operation, though, options are limited. "We can't just let them go," he said.