"Thugs" In Haiti

by Judith Scherr

Z magazine, December 2004

Ralph Hyppolit stood before the scorched remains of the house on the outskirts of Cap-HaItien, Haiti where his 14-year-old niece died at the hands of marauding ex-military and former death squad members on February 22, 2004. His niece and wife were packing the last of the household things, getting ready to join him in hiding.

"They were asking for me. My wife screamed, 'I don't know.' They shot up the house and tied up my niece. They blocked the door and sprayed gasoline on the couch," Hyppolit said. His wife escaped. "She's still scared," he said.

Why was Ralph Hyppolit a target? "I'm Lavalas," the 23-year-old stated. Fanmi Lavalas is the exiled president's political movement. "I'm like President Aristide. They don't want President Aristide for five years. [His full term in office.] They don't want anybody fighting for Aristide."

When I visited northern Haiti last summer, I saw charred police stations, torched courts, the remnants of a radio-TV station, empty shells of school buses, and scorched or bullet-ridden houses. All testified to the brutality visitedon supporters of the democratically elected government.

I also interviewed Pascal Miller whose brother, an Aristide supporter, was killed by former soldiers, and Solido Gason, a pro-Aristide carpenter who was shot in the leg and survived. I met Police Chief Charles Chilly's parents. Their home was riddled with bullets when the military came looking for Chilly, now hiding outside the country.

I visited Lavalas supporter SO Anne in prison, arrested without a warrant by U.S. Marines in May and I interviewed Lob Reagan, a journalist with the now-shuttered children's radio station that Aristide founded. Reagan spent three months in a jail so crowded that people could not lie down to sleep.

So I was dismayed to read State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher's October 12 bulletin placing blame on "Aristide thugs" for "the violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti that began on September 30. Armed gangs and groups who support former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide have launched a systematic campaign to destabilize the interim government and disrupt the efforts of the international community to assist the Haitian people."

I should not have been surprised at the distortions. After all, this is the same Administration that went to war in Iraq because of Saddam Hussein's WMDs and his elusive ties to the September 11 massacre; the same government that opens its arms to refugees from Cuba, while returning Haitian refugees to the arms of military marauders.

Boucher contends the post-September 30 violence in Port-auPrince was aimed at destabilizing the U.S. -backed government. Take a closer look at the events of that day: thousands of Aristide supporters memorialized the 1991 coup that overturned his first government-a military coup perpetrated by many of the ex-military walking armed and free in Haiti today-by marching peacefully in Port-au-Prince. Demonstrators had informed police of their route, as required. However, police opened fire on the peaceful marchers.

Leslie Voltaire, former member of Aristide's cabinet, told the Washington Post that it was only after the police shootings that the demonstrators "began acting like hooligans because they were furious." That was the beginning of theevents that led to the killing over the next 2 weeks of some 45 people, including police officers, Lavalas supporters, and people caught in the crossfire.

While Boucher condemned an alleged systematic challenge to Haiti's U.S.-backed government, he seemed to have forgotten that it was the U. S. that quashed the island-nation's fragile democracy.

In February, after the ex-military and former death squad members took over a number of northern towns, including Cap HaItien, they moved toward Port-au-Prince. Claiming that these so-called rebels-ex-military, former deathsquad paramilitaries, and criminals they had let out of the jails-were poised to take over Port-au-Prince, U.S. officials whisked Aristide from the country, asserting that they were protecting him. Aristide ysays he was removed by force. The U.S.-along with France, Canada, the Haitian business community, and political parties opposed to Aristide-helped to set up the "interim" government, whose prime minister thanked the ex-soldiers for their role and called them "freedom fighters." Regime change was not restricted to the federal level. All 435 democratically elected mayors were booted from office and replaced by appointees amenable to the U.S. -backed government.

Lawlessness and repression under the U.S.-backed government grows daily. Three former Lavalas parliamentarians were arrested without a warrant on October 2 after they participated in a radio broadcast where they criticized the government. Their lawyer was arrested when he came to help them. On October 13, popular catholic priest Fr. Gerard Jean Juste was arrested without a warrant while serving food to needy children. These arrestees join Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert, the former mayor of Port au Prince, labor union activists arrested when their headquarters was raided early in September, and hundreds of other Aristide supporters.

A recent Pax Christi U.S. human rights delgation reported,

"Over and over we were told by) the people of Haiti that there is little or no international human rights presence here. There is no rule of law, the strong do what they want because no one will help the victims bring about justice."

Boucher calls Lavalas supporters "thugs," yet fails to condemn the illegal arrests, wholesale police roundups, unwarranted killings by police, or the brutal actions of the former military and death squad members, who are allowed to control various cities, unfettered by the UN "peacekeepers" who claim they don't have the troops to contain the former soldiers.

I wish Secretary of State Cohn Powell could meet the father of "Baby" Izac Gerard, murdered by the ex-soldiers near Cap-HaItien in February or the woman I spoke to cradling the picture of her dead son or the women I heard pleading with human rights workers to help get their husbands out of jail. The State Department spinmeisters haven't met the mayors, the journalists, or the trade unionists in hiding and they haven't heard 88-year-old Ritert Castel, wounded when the ex-military men shot up her neighborhood, call out defiantly: "Vive Aristide." Are these people thugs?

Lawlessness should be condemned. But characterizing as "thugs" the large numbers of people that support the return of Haiti's elected leader is irresponsible.

Freedom-loving people should urge the interim government-and the UN peacekeepers that support it-to set free people imprisoned illegally and imprison those who have committed crimes, to restore the freedoms of assembly and speech guaranteed by Haiti's constitution, and to unlock the door to democracy, which includes the return of the country's democratically elected leader.

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Judith Scherr is a freelance reporter, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Contra Costa Times, SF Bay Guardian, East Bay Monthly, and the
Berkeley Daily Planet.

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Forwarded by the Haitian Lawyers' Leadership Network
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