Priest's arrest an injustice that hits home

Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, Oct. 17, 2004
Jim DeFede/In My Opinion
Priest's arrest an injustice that hits home

Soon after Haiti's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced to leave Haiti in February, Kernst Jean-Juste begged his brother, the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, to do the same.

''I tried to convince him to come back to Miami and wait for things to calm down,'' Kernst recalled. 'But he said, `No, I'm Haitian and I'm staying. And if I have to die, I'll die in my country.' ''

For nearly three decades, the maverick Roman Catholic priest has placed the needs of Haiti's poor above his own and has been a relentless champion for democracy.

''I believe in justice,'' Jean-Juste once told The Herald. ``The taste of freedom for somebody else is a great victory for me.''

On Wednesday, Jean-Juste was arrested as he was feeding almost 600 children from his church in Port-au-Prince. The government accuses him of inciting violence and aiding a brutal faction of Lavalas Family, Aristide's political party.

''My brother is a peaceful person,'' his sister, Francine Jean-Juste Delica, told me. ``He is a nonviolent person.''

''Anyone who was an Aristide supporter is being persecuted in Haiti,'' Kernst added.

In recent weeks, numerous Lavalas leaders have been arrested -- many without any formal charges. Among those jailed: Haiti's former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and the former Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert. Two Lavalas senators were arrested this month for criticizing the government on a radio program.

On Friday, as they have on other occasions, Haitian police, backed by United Nations troops, stormed through a slum in Port-au-Prince, conducting mass arrests while killing or wounding an untold number of innocent civilians.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue -- backed by the United States argues the arrests, including Father Jean-Juste and the other Lavalas leaders, are needed to maintain order.

Yet Latortue has failed to disarm or curb the activities of the rebels who control most of the country. Latortue's one-sided assault on Lavalas will only increase the violence in a country seemingly headed for a civil war. In addition to Jean-Juste, there are reports two other priests have also been arrested in recent days. But the arrest of Jean-Juste -- the first Haitian native ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the U.S. -- strikes a chord in Miami because of his connection here.

After being ordained in Brooklyn in 1971, he returned to Haiti where he was assigned to a small rural parish. The young priest's sermons and charismatic style, however, made him a target for Duvalier's brutal police, forcing him to flee Haiti after just five months.

Back in the United States, he earned a degree in civil engineering from Northeastern University while serving at a nearby Boston parish where he also taught English to recent immigrants. In 1977, he visited Miami for two weeks to preach and celebrate Mass. Jean-Juste became so enthralled by Miami's burgeoning Haitian community that he moved here in 1978 to focus on the plight of Haitians escaping that country's dictatorship.

That same year, he founded the Haitian Refugee Center that challenged the federal government's policies regarding refugees and won a series of landmark court cases. In 1981, for instance, Jean-Juste and the center won the release of nearly 2,000 Haitians who were being detained at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

Jean-Juste's habit of being outspoken and defiant irritated his superiors in the Miami Archdiocese, who frowned on his mixture of politics and theology.

Soon after arriving in Miami, he was stripped of his right to celebrate Mass here.

''The church must speak to all and it has a duty to preach the gospel of liberation in its integrity,'' Jean-Juste once said.

In 1991, with the election of Aristide, he returned to Haiti. ''I come from the peasantry,'' he said, ``and the homeland has a strong draw for us.''

Now the 57-year-old priest who preaches the gospel of liberation sits in a jail cell.

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Forwarded by the Haitian Lawyers Leadership
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