[quote]Haitians languish in squalor awaiting trial
Country's shattered legal system strands angry prisoners
Friday, February 11, 2005 PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Yvon Neptune, Haiti's former prime minister, ushers in his guests with a grand sweep of his hand.
"Please take a seat. This is the best I can offer you under the circumstances," he says, pointing to a concrete bench in his three- by two-metre jail cell at the National Penitentiary.
Mr. Neptune, who recently marked his 58th birthday in this squalid prison, puts on his reading glasses, settles into a plastic lawn chair and crosses his bare legs.
This is his first interview since he came out of hiding and gave himself up in June, four months after Pre
sident Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a rebellion led by former soldiers and armed thugs.
He is accused of providing weapons to Mr. Aristide's supporters, who allegedly used them to massacre opponents in the town of St. Marc as the rebellion was gathering steam. He denies the charge.
"It's clear I'm being held up here as an example," he complains. "My matter has not gone before a judge."
Neither have the cases of most of the penitentiary's 1,028 inmates. Only 12 have been convicted and sentenced, the rest are languishing in Haiti's shattered legal system.
According to some human-rights advocates, dozens of inmates have been arrested for nothing more than being partisans of Mr. Aristide -- arrests that take place with the approval, if not the connivance, of the interim government that was installed under foreign tutelage after his departure.
It is nearly a year since Mr. Aristide fled into exile in South Africa. An election for a new government is supposed to take
place in November, but there are few signs of reconciliation between those who opposed the Canadian-educated former priest and the supporters who agitate for his return.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say police are quick to arrest members of Lavalas, Mr. Aristide's party, when they are suspected of violence or corruption, but have failed to act against the former military soldiers -- some of whom are convicted criminals -- who led the uprising against the ex-president.
"Neptune is being kept in jail as a symbol of all of Aristide's human-rights violations and excesses. He may or may not be guilty, but he is being denied due process," says Jean-Rony Morrisseau, a lawyer with the Committee of Lawyers for the Respect of Individual Liberty.
Mr. Morrisseau estimates that there are as many as 30 political prisoners in Haiti, including former interior minister Jocelerme Privert, who has the cell next door to Mr. Neptune; two Lavalas senators; a former police chief; and Gérard
Jean-Juste, a populist priest who was held for several weeks in the prison until his recent release.
"Many face vague or impossible-to-prove charges such as public mischief or conspiracy against the state's safety," Mr. Morrisseau says.
On Dec. 1, seven prisoners in a penitentiary cell block known as the Titanic were killed by police and three more died of injuries during a bloody riot that is now under investigation by the government. Police say they stopped a prison plot designed to bring down the interim government, but Mr. Aristide's loyalists allege that as many as 40 prisoners were killed.
Mr. Neptune fears he will be assassinated inside the prison, which has become a battleground for the political war that is playing out across Haiti. He denies involvement in the St. Marc killings and says his lawyer has requested that the judge be removed from the case because of bias. He is also not above pleading for his case to be given priority.
"You're not talking about anyone here,
" he says. "You're talking about the former prime minister."
An official with MINUSTAH, the United Nations mission in Haiti that is made up of police from Canada and several other countries, also says he is concerned about Mr. Neptune's continued detention. Human Rights Watch concluded in its Jan. 13 World Report chapter on Haiti that police are carrying out arrests without warrants and, in some cases, with little evidence.
A recent University of Miami School of Law report, led by attorney Thomas Griffin, went further. The justice system is "twisted against poor young men, dissidents and anyone calling for the return of the constitutional government," it found.
Inside the penitentiary, a repeat of the December riot seems possible at any moment.
Mr. Neptune, who has money and influence, is housed in a well-kept solitary cell with a bed, clean sheets, a fan, a radio and boxes of food, water and cleaning materials.
It is a very different story in the Titanic, a three-storey c
ell block with open sewers, rotting garbage, and rats and cockroaches scurrying about. It was built for 440 inmates but now houses 562.
On the day I was there, a dozen angry prisoners had broken through a barrier and were shaking the bars at the cell entrance, demanding to be let out. Several guards stood uneasily at the entrance, saying it might not be the best time to tour the Titanic's inner chambers.
Breakfast -- a large vat of brown broth with undetermined particles floating in the soup -- arrived at noon in a filthy metal pot brought in by wheelbarrow.
There was a shortage of mattresses and water, and no bathrooms. When I asked to use the toilet, prison director Sony Marcellus handed me a pail.
Mr. Marcellus says he doesn't know how many of the inmates are Lavalas partisans. But he concedes that almost all are being held without being seen by judges. "The justice system is too slow," he said. "And there are not enough guards in the prison. Some are afraid of the inmates."
Recreation programs are unheard of, and prisoners spend much of their time banging on their cell doors, complaining. Many are not allowed out at all.
"The guards get scared whenever there are more than 20 or 30 of us here in the courtyard. They worry about riots," explained Titanic inmate Wolff Estaing, a deportee from the United States who was picked up during a public disturbance. He says he doesn't know what charges he is facing.
Mr. Estaing said prisoners' main frustration is the delay in getting their cases through the courts, but he also had a comment on the prison fare.
"Look at that food," he said, pointing to the vat of dirty brown soup. "My cat in New York ate better than that."
Over on his side of the jail, Mr. Neptune whiles away his time following the news on the radio, jogging on the spot and studying Spanish. He recently finished a novel by Brazilian author Machado de Assis that was left behind by a visitor from the Organization of American States.
he judiciary hasn't been working for a long time in this country," he says. "What revolts me the most is not my being here, but the way other prisoners are treated. I see prisoners being beaten here, and most are just poor people from the slums."
By law, a Haitian who is arrested is supposed to be seen by a judge within 48 hours. In practice, this does not happen. Part of the reason is that several court buildings were looted and burned in last year's anti-Aristide uprising.
Yet investigating human-rights abuses is difficult in Haiti, where marronage -- a Creole word meaning obscuring reality -- is the modus operandi.
"Everything is cloaked in smoke and mirrors in Haiti. Virtually every story is wrapped in rhetoric and hyperbole," says David Beer, an RCMP chief superintendent acting as the UN mission's police commissioner.
Human-rights groups themselves vehemently disagree on the facts. Some say there are 700 political prisoners but cannot provide names; others say there are non
e at all. It is not clear that Lavalas-affiliated inmates in the overcrowded penitentiary are receiving worse treatment than the other prisoners.
The National Coalition for Haitians' Rights believes there have been no reprisals against Lavalas members.
"The ones in jail are accused criminals who happen to have been Aristide supporters," said Pierre Esperance, the coalition's director. For example, he said, Father Jean-Juste was jailed on suspicion of masterminding a campaign of attacks against police that was dubbed Operation Baghdad.
Leon Charles, chief of the Haitian National Police, says Father Jean-Juste and other Lavalas politicians were implicated in the recent violence through their association with gang leaders.
"We want to send the signal to the intellectual authors of the violence," he says. "This has prompted criticism."
He acknowledged that there may be something to the claims of Mr. Aristide's followers. "It's possible some police officers are taking advanta
ge of the current political climate to execute personal vendettas," he said.The University of Miami's human-rights report even accuses the UN stabilization mission of collaborating with Haitian National Police as they target Mr. Aristide's supporters.
MINUSTAH denies this, and a spokesman says they plan to send peacekeepers into prisons to track the progress of cases against the dozens of poor, young males arrested in the slums during the pro-Aristide demonstrations.
"Until the justice system is up and running properly, it will be impossible to clarify whether there are political prisoners," Supt. Beer said.
Régis Charron, a Corrections Canada assistant warden who is working in Haiti with a UN program to reform the penitentiary system, said one thing is clear: The appalling circumstances that prisoners must endure can only lead to more violence and bloodshed.
Unless conditions improve both in the prison and in the judicial system, another riot could break out at any time, said Mr
. Charron, whose predecessor resigned last year after Haitian authorities refused to accept recommendations to improve penitentiary conditions.
"It's impossible to leave human beings in subhuman conditions and think nothing will happen," he said.
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