Haitian earthquake upends country's criminal justice system

By Henri E. Cauvin
washington post foreign service
Sunday, February 7, 2010; A18

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.

The national police have been praised for helping maintain relative calm and stability in the quake's aftermath. But 4,000 inmates escaped from the penitentiary during the earthquake, and few have been recaptured. Food and other relief supplies have been slow to reach the millions in need, sowing anxiety and tension.

Without functioning courts, the pressure on the police and in the lockups will only mount. Judges have begun reviewing pending cases to identify people who could be released, and Gedeon said he is pushing for that to happen as swiftly as possible.

"It's not normal to keep people this long. . . . They still have the rights," he said. But he acknowledged those rights were not being honored. "Unfortunately, no."

For the men who are locked up a few feet away, the restoration of those rights cannot happen quickly enough. "I can't sleep," Gélin Fayette, 22, said. "I don't close my eyes. There are too many people."

As he spoke, other inmates pushed up against the wrought-iron fence, desperate to offer their own take on the conditions they were enduring. There is no food or water, several pointed out.

Relatives who might have brought such provisions are coping with their own earthquake-induced crises or, worse, are dead.

"Most of us have no families here," said Dorcelus Saint Vertil, 38, who is from Carrefour and was visiting a relative when he was arrested after fighting with other men over a found $20 bill. "Most of my family here died."

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