As night fell on the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, a contingent of heavily armed Haitian police descended on the home of Leon Jeune, a former police chief and presidential candidate who was a vocal critic of the government. After firing a volley of gunshots toward the sky, the officers mounted a raid on his residence that participants now describe as dirty politics rather than law enforcement.

Authorities said at the time--Nov. 16, 1997--that Jeune, then 61, was amassing weapons to carry out an attack against the state. But two officers involved in the raid said that, while they confiscated several guns belonging to Jeune, the police planted numerous other firearms and munitions throughout the house to incriminate him. The officers also said the handcuffed suspect was beaten by a police commander and would have been killed had a U.N. official not arrived on the scene.

"We were shooting in the air to make it seem like he was shooting at us; it was part of the plan," said a participant in the operation. "The mission was designed so he would be killed."

Jeune spent more than three weeks in jail before a judge ordered his release. By then, his case had become an example cited by critics inside and outside the Haitian National Police who say that segments of the U.S.-trained force have been used at the behest of politically connected commanders to harass, intimidate and silence some opponents of the government and former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

A politically neutral police force was considered a top priority for Haiti after 20,000 troops, mostly Americans, dismantled a military dictatorship here five years ago and reinstated Aristide as the country's first democratically elected president. But interviews with a half-dozen former and active Haitian police officers suggest the effort has a long way to go--that some commanders use their powers for ruthless political enforcement that evokes memories of the repression Haiti endured for years before the United States intervened.

The police officers said that at times they were even urged by their superiors to ignore the human rights training they had received from U.S. advisers and to get tough with political targets. "One commander said to forget what we learned at the academy and act like policemen in an undeveloped country," a former police officer recalled.

The current and former police officers who early this month described the attacks refused to allow their names to be published out of fear of retribution against them and their families. Some of the former officers have moved to the United States and were interviewed there.

The orders to carry out politically motivated attacks came from upper-level commanders with ties to Aristide's Lavalas political party or the government of President Rene Preval, who is Aristide's hand-picked successor, the officers said. There does not appear to be concrete evidence that Aristide and Preval or police officials above the rank of commander have been directly involved in planning or ordering the harassment and intimidation. But speculation to the contrary abounds, and Haiti's society remains starkly divided between a small group of haves who run the economy and the poor masses who look to Aristide for radical change.

"Institutionally we have preached and consistently enforced a nonpolitical position," Police Chief Pierre Denize said. "This country has a great tradition of the force serving the political, and right now we are against the traditional current."

Many of the political operations have been carried out by members of the police department's SWAT division and officers in a crowd-control unit known as CIMO, according to the officers interviewed and foreign law enforcement officials. One of the officers said he also has received extra money from his superiors for conducting surveillance and investigations of political figures.

"In the end, SWAT had become a political instrument, a political tool. But this was not what it was supposed to be," said one former officer.

The past and current officers said that on a number of occasions they were ordered to detain individuals deemed to be political opponents on grounds that they posed a threat to state security, even though there was little or no evidence to support the claims. Some of the arrests were conducted using warrants.

"Sometimes there were operations that I think were done just to scare or intimidate people who were not in step with the government or Aristide. One time we raided a house above Port-au-Prince that had nothing more threatening in it than furniture," said one former officer, who said he quit the force after he was threatened for refusing to participate in a raid.

Three weeks ago, the issue of police harassment gained further attention when a group of officers carrying semiautomatic weapons accompanied government regulators and a justice of the peace to the downtown office of Vision 2000, a radio station that has criticized the government and Aristide. Regulators claimed that Vision 2000 was illegally operating its satellite link, but the situation was defused when the station presented its paperwork.

"I see this as political harassment of a radio station," said Vision 2000's general director, Leopold Berlanger. "It was intimidating because it was far from a normal inspection, which does not include an armada of police with guns."

Some politically related police operations have involved more than harassment. One night two years ago, an officer recalled, several SWAT team members were dispatched by a commander to an isolated stretch of road north of Port-au-Prince and told to wait for a gray Jeep with a certain license plate and to fire at the driver when the vehicle passed.

"The commander just told us that a lot of political leaders are troublemakers and if we do not take care of them they will take care of us," he said. "We had our fingers on our triggers but we never saw the Jeep."

Aramick Louis, the police commander accused of beating Jeune during the raid in Petionville, denied in an interview that he mistreated or planned to kill the former presidential candidate and said no weapons were planted in his home. Louis said a six-month investigation revealed that Jeune, who served as interim police chief in 1995, was planning a coup d'etat at the National Palace using 1,500 men.

"The police are here to protect democratic institutions. At the same time, we must stay out of politics," Louis said.

Jeune, who plans to run for president again next year, denied he planned a coup, saying, "What they did was political, and it was obvious to me that if they could have, they would have killed me. Since I got out of jail, I have not talked much. To tell you the truth, if I talk too much, it gets on their nerves."

Notwithstanding its problems, the new police department is considered to be a significant improvement over the state security squads that terrorized this impoverished Caribbean country during decades of military-backed dictatorships.

The force, said to have about 6,000 officers, has also been praised for good police work despite being short on manpower and equipment. Earlier this month, for instance, officers seized more than 600 pounds of cocaine, five luxury cars and $42,000 in the upscale Belvil neighborhood outside Port-au-Prince.

Drug-related corruption, however, remains widespread, including at the commander level. Subordinates have been transferred from their posts, threatened and even killed for raising questions about political operations or other illicit activities, officers said.

A power vacuum, meanwhile, has emerged at the top of the force with the recent resignation of the secretary of state for public security, Robert Manuel, who had worked closely with Denize since 1996. Manuel has left the country, apparently for security reasons. He had faced heavy criticism and pressure to step down from Aristide's political movement.

While officials from Aristide's party complained that Manuel was unable to rein in crime, others suggested the party wants to exert greater control over the police force. Lavalas officials, while acknowledging they have criticized the force's leadership, deny any connection to politically motivated attacks or arrests.

The force also came under harsh criticism for failing to respond more assertively at a May 28 anti-crime rally in Port-au-Prince organized by the Chamber of Commerce. The rally was disrupted by demonstrators linked to Lavalas, and the event grew unruly. The lack of police action was viewed by many as a strong indicator of the department's general allegiance to Aristide.

But recent events suggest the use of police in political operations can go both ways. During the Lavalas campaign against Manuel and Denize, a news director of the party's Radio Timoun was arrested in late April after his car was stopped in a routine search and leaflets denouncing Manuel were found in the vehicle. The director was accused of plotting against state security but was released the following day.

The night after Manuel resigned, former army colonel Jean Lamy, a close friend of Aristide and Preval who was said to be talking about assuming the secretary of state job, was shot to death in his car on a main Port-au-Prince street. Witnesses said several police cars were nearby when the shooting happened.