Duvalier is brought before Haitian court

Jean-Claude Duvalier, the former Haitian dictator known as "Baby Doc," arrives at a Port-au-Prince courthouse under police escort.
Jean-Claude Duvalier, the former Haitian dictator known as "Baby Doc," arrives at a Port-au-Prince courthouse under police escort. (Hector Retamal)
By Jonathan M. Katz
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was brought into court to answer questions Tuesday as a legal case was opened against him, nearly 25 years after he was forced from power in a popular uprising against a government widely regarded as brutal and corrupt.

Defense attorney Gervais Charles said the former Haitian dictator known as "Baby Doc" is facing accusations of corruption and embezzlement for allegedly pilfering the treasury before his 1986 ouster.

Charles said the case is now in the hands of a judge who will decide whether there is enough evidence to go to trial. That process can take up to three months.

Duvalier spent much of the day in a closed-door court session before answering questions.

Haiti's system allows for pretrial detention. But Mona Bernadeau, a Senate candidate from Duvalier's political party, said Duvalier was expected to return to his hotel after the court session ended.

Earlier Tuesday, a contingent of police led the former dictator through the hotel and to a waiting sport-utility vehicle. He was not wearing handcuffs. Police did not confirm whether he had been charged with any crime.

Duvalier, 59, was calm and did not say anything, ignoring questions from journalists, as he was led away amid a blend of cheers and jeers.

The SUV drove in a convoy of police vehicles to a courthouse, even as dozens of Duvalier supporters tried to block streets with overturned trash bins and rocks. The courthouse was thronged with spectators and journalists, who were not permitted to enter.

Duvalier's companion, Veronique Roy, was asked whether Duvalier had been arrested. Speaking by phone from inside the court, she responded, "Absolutely not."

She said she did not know why authorities decided to escort him to court and did not expect to be there much longer. "We are very relaxed, drinking coffee and water," she said. "They said they are making photocopies. We don't know why."

Several hundred Duvalier supporters gathered outside the court, burning tires, chanting slogans and calling for the arrest of President Rene Preval.

Duvalier was removed from his hotel after meeting in private there with senior Haitian judicial officials, including the country's top prosecutor and a judge, as human rights groups and others called for his arrest.

Duvalier was forced into exile in 1986 in a mass uprising and had been living in exile in France. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have urged the Haitian government to arrest him for widespread abuses.

Amnesty International issued a statement praising what it called "the arrest" of Duvalier but said it was just a start.

"If true justice is to be done in Haiti, the Haitian authorities need to open a criminal investigation into Duvalier's responsibility for the multitude of human rights abuses that were committed under his rule including torture, arbitrary detentions, rape, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions," the group said.

Duvalier assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The father and son presided over a dark period in Haitian history, when a thuggish government secret police force known as the Tonton Macoute tortured and killed opponents.

The younger Duvalier still has some support in Haiti, and millions are too young to remember life under his dictatorship.

He has not yet publicly commented on exactly why he came back to Haiti. His companion, Roy, told reporters he would stay three days.

His return comes as Haiti struggles to work through a political crisis following a problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election, as well as a cholera epidemic and a troubled recovery from an earthquake.

Duvalier has also been accused of pilfering millions of dollars from public funds and spiriting them out of the country to Swiss banks, though he denies stealing from Haiti.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Tuesday that Duvalier's return increases the chance that he could be charged with atrocities committed during his 15-year rule because it will be easier to bring charges in the country where the crimes occurred.

He cautioned, though, that Haiti's fragile judicial system may be in no position to mount a case.

- Associated Press

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