Efforts to free Haitian political prisoner the Rev. Jean Juste have gone unrewarded, and now supporters fear he may be in need of medical treatment.
BY THERESA BRADLEY
Fearing that he could be dying of cancer behind bars, family members of jailed Haitian priest and former Miami activist Gerárd Jean-Juste Wednesday launched a Christmas plea for his release -- this time on medical grounds.
''This is no longer about his imprisonment as a prisoner of conscience,'' said Steven Forester of the advocacy group Haitian Women of Miami, which helped organize Wednesday's plea.
"This is now a matter of life, and as a humanitarian gesture, he should be allowed to come to Miami to get the medical attention that he needs.''
Jean-Juste, a well-known activist who once headed the most powerful Haitian rights organizat
ion in the United States, was arrested by Haitian authorities five months ago for alleged involvement in the kidnapping and murder of prominent Haitian journalist Jacques Roche. He has maintained his innocence, noting that he was in Miami at the time of Roche's death.
Jean-Juste's July 21 arrest was his second following the February 2004 ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom Jean-Juste strongly backs.
Supporters and family members maintain that he is being held illegally, without ever having been charged.
The Haitian investigative judge involved in the case disputes that claim, but has yet to release the results of his investigation of the priest -- despite insisting to The Miami Herald in October that he would do so in a matter of weeks.
Earlier this month, Jean-Juste was examined in prison by a U.S. doctor, John Carroll, who found that his lymph nodes were enlarged and his white blood cell count high -- both possible signs of cancer or infectious di
sease, warranting more extensive tests, Carroll said.
Haitian officials claimed that their own doctors have also examined Jean-Juste, and found no symptoms of cancer, the Associated Press reported.
But the priest's family insisted that he would never have allowed government doctors to examine him.
Ten of those relatives appeared at Wednesday's press conference in Little Haiti to plea for his release.
''Please, as Christians, help us in the holiday season to help us have our brother here,'' said Jean-Juste's sister Franciane Delica, 53, who Wednesday circulated a letter she'd written to President Bush, urging him to step up pressure on Haiti's U.S.-backed interim government to free her brother.
''If God forbid, anything should happen to Jerry, Haitian Americans of every political persuasion will all blame Bush,'' said Forester, of Haitian Women of Miami, referring to Jean-Juste by his nickna
Supporters argue that Jean-Juste's detention is a ploy intended to neutralize him politically during Haiti's presidential elections, scheduled for Jan. 8.
Some of the priest's backers in Haiti had attempted to register him as a candidate, but the electoral council there refused their application.
In the U.S., Jean-Juste's continued detention has brought Haitian-Americans of all political stripes together -- including more than 1,000 who marched through downtown Miami in a Dec. 10 rally calling for his release.
''It's not that he's a member of the Lavalas party, or a supporter of Aristide. It's that he's someone who has fought for all human rights,'' said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. "What we're asking is for the government to respect his rights, too.''
Last Friday, 42 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter sent to Pre
sident Bush, urging him to push for Jean-Juste's immediate release, to receive medical care.
Still, the priest's spirits have sagged to uncharacteristic lows in recent weeks, family members said.
''He's usually very high-spirited, but recently you could hear it in his voice,'' said niece Fayola Delica, who said she last spoke to her uncle by phone from prison several weeks ago. ``We just know that his condition is very poor.''
In the past, the U.S. State Department has urged Haitian officials to resolve Jean-Juste's case quickly -- but it has declined to make any more assertive push for his release, Jean-Juste supporters said.
Ira Kurzban, a longtime friend and Miami colleague of Jean-Juste, as well as Aristide's attorney, chided U.S. officials for that hands-off approach.
''If this were Cuba, if this were Venezuela, or any other country in the Western Hemisphere . . . they would call Jean-Juste what he is, which is a political priso
ner,'' Kurzban said.
"I think people are fed up. I think they believe that if it wasn't Haiti, if it wasn't a poor black country, he would've been released a long time ago.''
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