The trial of the first high ranking military officer of the fallen regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier to be charged with a serious crime opened here today as a nationwide television audience watched.
Lt. Col. Samuel Jeremie, once a member of Duvalier's inner circle of security guards, is accused of murder, breach of Army discipline and "cruelty," stemming from two incidents in which at least four Haitians were killed.
Jeremie's is also the first open trial for a criminal offense in recent memory in Haiti, authorities said. Under the 29-year regime of "Baby Doc" Duvalier and his father Francois, known as Papa Doc, virtually all criminal trials were closed to the public.
Journalists packed the cramped, airless room in the Army's general barracks in the capital today. Long segments of the session were broadcast live on Haitian television and radio.
At a time when the three-month-old governing council led by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy has appeared paralyzed and unable to take forceful decisions, the trial is seen as a sign that the council will not shrink from prosecuting crimes by members of the ousted regime.
"All those who have committed crimes whether they are civilian or military, now know that justice will strike them," said Justice Minister Francois Latortue in an interview today.
Jeremie is charged with homicide by torture in the May 1984 case of Jean Sylvera Sylvestre, according to the prosecution. Jeremie is said to have secretly held Sylvestre for two days in an Army warehouse in Port-au-Prince, where Sylvestre died, allegedly from beatings at Jeremie's hand.
The Army officer is also charged with the shooting death last Jan. 31 of Antoine Germaine, who died on Jeremie's farm near the southwestern provincial town of Leogane. A squad of Duvalier's elite paramilitary forces, known as the Ton-Tons Macoutes, went to the farm to stop dozens of protesters from looting it, in the tense days before Jean-Claude Duvalier's Feb. 7 departure.
The Ton-Tons Macoutes opened fire on the crowd, killing at least a dozen people. One eyewitness in the trial will testify that he saw Jeremie shooting into the melee with a revolver, prosecutors said.
The gray-haired Jeremie sat quietly today in court in a white business suit, while his defense lawyer donned a full-length black robes in the sweltering chamber.
"I am not guilty," Jeremie told reporters, "and the court will find me innocent."
Defense lawyer Jacques Laroche said he will argue that Duvalier released Jeremie five days before the January killings, so he was unarmed that day. "Duvalier was in charge of the Ton-Tons Macoutes who did the shooting," Laroche said.
Jeremie, whose case is being heard before a five-judge military tribunal, faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail for homicide and 15 years for violating Army discipline.
Latortue noted, "If Jeremie is acquitted, the people will be mad." He said he moved last week to postpone for a month the murder trial in Cap-Haitien of a local Ton-Tons Macoutes commander. A mob attempted to burn down the prosecutor's house there after a rumor circulated that he had been bribed by the defendant.
Last week the government arrested two other widely feared Ton-Tons Macoutes leaders, former Port-au-Prince mayor Franck Romain and Paul Vericain, the former mayor of a suburb of the capital. They will face trial on separate murder charges, Latortue said. The trial of former Ton-Tons Macoutes intelligence chief Luc Desir is expected to begin this month, he said.
The government has also moved to secure the extradition from Brazil of former police chief Albert Pierre.
Asked how many citizens' complaints against former officials his office has received, Latortue replied: "hundreds."