Haiti activists call for release of political prisoners, return to constitutional government

by Judith Scherr

What´s it like to be stuffed into a 9-foot by 9-foot space so small that you can´t lie down, so cramped you can scarcely breathe? Thirty people found out when they traded in their spectator status at a vigil for Haitian political prisoners and stepped cheek to jowl into the designated square, simulating a jail cell in Haiti.

In Port-au-Prince, attorney Thomas Griffin observed as many as 42 prisoners in a 9-foot by 9-foot cell, Haiti Action Committee member Leslie Mullin told those gathered in U.N. Plaza Monday evening. There are an estimated 1,000 political prisoners in jail; there are prisoners, such as Jimmy Charles, who have died in police hands before they reach jail; there are others who are detained, beaten and freed.

It´s bad that prisoners have to stay in their cells 12 hours every day, Mullen said. It´s bad that in the sweltering rodent-infested cells, they have no water and only a bucket in which to relieve themselves; it´s bad that beaten and sick prisoners rarely get medical attention.

“But they are charged with nothing!’ said Mullin, who has traveled to Haiti and observed conditions first hand. Only 17 of the approximately 1,100 prisoners in Port-au-Prince´s National Penitentiary have been convicted of a crime, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in January. Most have not been before a judge to be charged with a crime, a violation of Haitian law.

President Jean Bertrand Aristide was forcibly removed from Haiti by U.S. officials on Feb. 29, 2004, but it wasn´t only the chief of state who was eliminated, said Seth Donnelly, another Haiti Action Committee member. “It was a coup against all elected officials.’

Donnelly went to Haiti in August with the Haiti Accompaniment Project and interviewed a number of prisoners. Later, after the Dec. 1 shooting of some 60 prisoners by prison guards during a disturbance at the National Penitentiary, access to prisoners became much more difficult for human rights workers.

Donnelly told the gathering about Jacques Mathelier, a former public official from the southern city of Les Cayes. After the coup against Aristide, Mathelier´s house was destroyed and he went into hiding. He was able to go to New York where he stayed with his brother.

After returning to Haiti, Mathelier was arrested June 26 on what Donnelly said were trumped up arson and attempted assassination charges. On July 12 a judge declared there was no basis for the charges and authorized Mathelier´s release, but – a testimony to the lack of an independent judiciary – authorities have refused to release him.

“He´s been rotting away in prison,’ Donnelly told the gathering. “Keep Jacques in your mind.’

Activist journalist Kiilu Nyasha reminded the crowd that Aristide´s prime minister, Yvon Neptune, and his minister of the interior, Jocelerme Privert, both imprisoned for almost a year, had gone on a hunger strike to protest the fact that they were sitting in prison without any proof of a crime: they were said to have masterminded a “massacre’ near the town of St. Marc, but observers found no signs that a massacre had taken place. They were also protesting their imprisonment without being given a trial date. Both went on a hunger strike and are currently hospitalized.

The 24-hour vigil – a dozen activists slept in UN Plaza until the rain forced them to leave in the early hours of the Tuesday morning – coincided with the 18th anniversary of the Haitian Constitution. That day, despite numerous shootings by police which have occurred during peaceful protest marches, Aristide supporters all over Haiti planned to march in the streets to celebrate the Constitution, which they say has been defiled by the appointed U.S.-backed government.

“They have overthrown our Constitution and our democracy,’ said Pierre Labossiere, a founding member of Haiti Action. There is no longer freedom of speech, assembly or press; the government is appointed. “The Haitian military is back in Haiti, killing our brothers and sisters,’ Labossiere said. “They´re bringing back to good old days, the days of Papa Doc Duvalier.’

Judith Scherr is a freelance journalist living in Northern California. For more information on the current situation in Haiti, see www.Haitiaction.net or call (510) 483-7481.

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