Duvalier escaped justice, Montrealers say

baby doc duvalier.jpg

By Marian Scott, The Gazette, October 5, 2014

Montreal’s Haitian community greeted the death of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier with frustration and disappointment.

For Jan Dominique, whose journalist father, Jean, was among tens of thousands of victims of Duvalier’s brutal regime, the fact Duvalier died a free man – never having been prosecuted for atrocities perpetrated by his government – ended the family’s hopes of seeing justice done.

“I feel angry,” Dominique said. “For us, what’s frustrating is that we were unable to see that Mr. Duvalier was brought to justice,” she added.

Jean Dominique, an outspoken critic of the Duvalier reign, endured beatings and threats at the hands of Duvalier’s notorious Tonton Macoutes paramilitary force and was forced to flee Haiti twice. In 2000 – 14 years after Duvalier’s regime fell – he was gunned down at age 69 outside his radio station. His family has been fighting ever since to bring the abuses of the Duvalier regime to light.

Duvalier, 63, died in Port-au-Prince of a heart attack Saturday, three years after he returned to Haiti from a 25-year exile in France.

“Baby Doc” Duvalier became president of Haiti at age 19 when his father, dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, died in 1971. In 1986, Jean-Claude Duvalier fled to Paris when his regime was overthrown amid accusations of corruption and torture.

McGill University law professor Payam Akhavan, a former United Nations prosecutor who tried under the former government of René Préval to bring charges against Duvalier after the ex-dictator’s return to Haiti, called Duvalier’s death “profoundly disappointing.”

“I think it’s scandalous he died a free man,” Akhavan said in a telephone interview from England, where he is on a fellowship at the University of Oxford. “It’s just really the final insult for the thousands of people who were victims of his torture and murder,” he said.

The international advocacy group Human Rights Watch estimates the two Duvaliers ordered the deaths of between 20,000 to 30,000 Haitian civilians during a 30-year reign where torture and murder were commonplace.

Akhavan accused the international community, including Canada, of complicity in shielding the former dictator from prosecution.

Western countries were content to allow massive human-rights abuses in the poverty-stricken Caribbean country because they regarded Haiti under the Duvaliers as a bulwark against communism in the Cold War era, he said. Even though it’s too late for Duvalier to face justice, other members of his regime who took part in crimes against humanity should be prosecuted, Akhavan said.

He also recommended that Haiti set up a truth and reconciliation commission where victims of the Duvalier reign could be heard. “Until we learn the lessons of the past, we’re condemned to repeat them,” he said.

Frantz Voltaire, director of the Centre international de documentation et d’information Haïtienne Caraïbéenne et Afro-Canadienne (CIDIHCA), said now that Duvalier is dead, those fighting for justice should refocus their efforts on publicizing the abuses of the Duvalier era.

“Now it’s up to historians and people who were victims of his regime to shed light on those events and also to prosecute those who were close to Mr. Duvalier,” he said. Reed Brody, a senior counsel with Human Rights Watch who helped build a criminal case against the former dictator, said his death robs Duvalier’s victims of the opportunity to see him prosecuted.

“It’s certainly a shame that he died before he fully faced justice,” Brody said in an interview from New York. Duvalier’s death “deprives Haitians of what could have been the most important human-rights trial in the country’s history,” he said.

However, Brody said the fact Duvalier appeared in court in February 2013 to submit to questioning about his alleged crimes, and to listen to details about his prisons and his police, was an important moment in Haiti, where the rich and powerful have long enjoyed impunity from the law.

The Duvalier government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations and beat, imprisoned and tortured journalists, the organization said.

mascot@montrealgazette.com