How Haiti's Future May Depend on a Starving Prisoner

June 16, 2005
By GINGER THOMPSON | New York Times

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, June 11 - Once again, one man has become the center of a political storm that threatens to foil this country's uphill struggle for stability.

This time, it's not Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest and charismatic slum leader who was deposed last year by an armed uprising and forced into exile. It is the man who rose and fell in Mr. Aristide's shadow, his former prime minister, Yvon Neptune.

The former senator and radio talk show host has been jailed for a year without charges under a new government installed by the United States and is slowly starving himself to death in a minimum-security prison cell.

Last year, Haiti's new government arrested Mr. Neptune, 58, accusing him as the mastermind of a massacre in a small northern town, St.-Marc. Prime Minister G�rard Latortue argued that justice was the best way to heal Haiti's wounds, and promoted the case as proof that no one, no matter how powerful, could stand above the law.

But as the anniversary of Mr. Neptune's arrest approaches, his continued detention has become an embarrassment to the Bush administration and a symbol of the failures of what was supposed to be Haiti's transition to a fully functioning democracy.

From prison, the former prime minister has denounced his case as a "political witch hunt" aimed at seeking vengeance, not justice, against those who supported Mr. Aristide. In February he started a series of hunger strikes to demand that the government try him or set him free.

When a visitor went to the two-story house where Mr. Neptune is being held, the former prime minister could not lift his bony body off a foam mattress on the floor of his cell. He was wearing striped boxer shorts and listening to music on a Walkman. His most striking feature was the lines of his rib cage.

"I feel weak," he said barely above a whisper. "Some days I feel weaker than others. But it was my choice to go on hunger strike."

The hunger strikes have sent Mr. Neptune twice to the hospital in critical condition and brought expressions of concern, even outrage, about the injustices that continue to plague Haiti's justice system. Only about 20 of the more than 1,000 prisoners at the federal penitentiary have been convicted of crimes; many have spent years awaiting trial.

But Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York, said much more is at stake than Haiti's justice system.

Rather than a political achievement for Haiti's interim government, he said, it has become a serious liability less than four months from the start of important national elections.

And rather than uniting this violently polarized society, Mr. McCalla said, the case against Mr. Neptune has seemed only to keep old political hostilities festering, raising questions about the crimes of the past government, and about the legitimacy of the current one.

"The Neptune case has raised hard questions about the legitimacy of the United States' intervention in Haiti," Mr. McCalla said. "The intervention was based on the premise that the United States was ousting a criminal despot, namely President Aristide, who had used his powers to subvert democracy, and that the interim government was going to establish rule of law. That has not happened."

It is not easy to tell exactly what happened in St.-Marc. Estimates of the dead range from 5 to 50. But according to rights investigators and reports by the Haitian press, the violence had its roots in the upheaval that ousted President Aristide.

That rebellion began in early February 2004 in Gona�ves, when a rag-tag group of former soldiers attacked police stations and forced officers to abandon their posts. Word spread rapidly to St.-Marc, where Aristide opponents who called themselves Ramicos attacked the police station and set up barricades.

Mr. Neptune arrived there in the presidential helicopter on Feb. 9. Witnesses said he toured the city, summoned police officers back to their stations and vowed in an angry speech that the government would not surrender.

"What we are doing is to make sure that peace is re-established," he was quoted as saying in a Haitian newspaper account. "We are encouraging the police to get together with the population so that the cycle of violence can cease. We ask all the population that wants peace to mobilize against the spiraling violence."

In hindsight, some today see those words as giving the police a license to kill. Others see them as a beleaguered prime minister's striving to give confidence to his constituents.

Two days later, witnesses said, the presidential helicopter returned and circled over the city. Police officers accompanied by pro-Aristide gunmen called Bale Wouze (the Creole phrase describes a cleansing ritual) broke through the barricades around a Ramicos stronghold, setting buildings on fire and throwing people inside to burn alive.

No one claims to have seen Mr. Neptune. In fact, several days passed before anyone dared to enter the area to search for survivors.

Terry Snow, a missionary from Tyler, Tex., who has worked in Haiti since 1986, recalled that the streets were littered with bodies. He was too scared to take photos of them, he said, but he recalled seeing at least seven in one house and three heads in an outhouse. Others told him there were bodies on the hillside, being eaten by hungry pigs and dogs.

"By the time the police started looking for the bodies," he said, "they weren't there anymore."

By then, neither was President Aristide. The growing instability in Haiti brought immense pressure by the United States, and Mr. Aristide fled the country for exile in Africa.

Mr. Neptune, however, refused to flee, and cooperated with the United States by handing over power to Mr. Latortue, whose government repaid the favor with a warrant for Mr. Neptune's arrest.

Three weeks ago, the emaciated prisoner was carried on a stretcher to his first court hearing in St.-Marc and testified for several hours, the latest sign that the interim government had begun to buckle under mounting pressure and was seeking a way to expedite the Neptune case.

Months earlier, the government offered to fly Mr. Neptune for emergency medical treatment to the Dominican Republic, but Mr. Neptune refuses to leave Haiti until his name is cleared of wrongdoing.

[On Tuesday, Justice Minister Bernard Gousse resigned, a move that may clear a final obstacle to Mr. Neptune's release.]

The Haitian government blocked numerous attempts by two reporters from The New York Times to visit Mr. Neptune. Last Thursday, a reporter based in Haiti who works for The Times posed as a family friend and was allowed to visit him for seven minutes.

He was rail thin and could barely speak above a whisper. Still he was clean and well groomed, his hair combed, his fingernails filed and his signature goatee clipped in a neat line around his jaw.

He did not know for sure whether he was going to be released soon, he said. But if he was, he said, he would go to the United States for a while to recover with his wife and daughter. Still, he said he would not leave Haiti for long.

"I will be back," he said. "I made the decision that I am never going to live in exile. I am going to stay here. I think I can be a lot more useful in Haiti than in the United States.

"Haiti needs me more."

Regine Alexandre contributed reporting for this article.

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Forwarded by the Haitian Lawyers' Leadership Network

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