U.N. accuses Haiti of massive illegal detentions

Reuters AlertNet

April 6, 2006

U.N. accuses Haiti of massive illegal detentions
By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, April 6 (Reuters) - The head of the U.N. mission's human rights unit in Haiti accused judicial officials and the U.S.-backed interim government on Thursday of illegally detaining most of the 4,000 people behind bars in the country.

Thierry Fagart said most of the inmates had not been formally charged or put on trial by the interim authorities who replaced ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago.

"Most of the people in jail in Haiti are being detained illegally. The legal procedures have been systematically violated," said Fagart.

Fagart said many of the detainees, particularly high-profile prisoners, should be released immediately while investigations and other judicial proceedings continue.

He said the decision by authorities in the impoverished Caribbean country to hold people "preventively" behind bars, for months or years, often without charges filed against them, was unacceptable.

"There are people who have in preventive detention more time than provided by the law if they were sentenced," Fagart told Reuters.

He urged the interim authorities, who are due to hand power to President-elect Rene Preval next month, to comply with the principle of presumption of innocence.

"If they are found not guilty when tried, they will have spent all that time in jail for no reason," he said.

Hundreds of those jailed are widely believed to have been arrested for political reasons, although the interim government has repeatedly denied that.

Among them are former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert, both of whom served under Aristide.

Haiti's prisons are overflowing and cannot accommodate new inmates. At the national penitentiary where more than 2,000 people are jailed, only about 4 percent have been sentenced.

Officials at the prison, built to house only a few hundred, have refused over the past week to take in new suspects sent by the Haitian police and other judicial authorities because of lack of space.

Virtually all the prisoners were arrested over the past two years under the interim government because Haiti's prisons were emptied during or right after the armed rebellion that toppled Aristide in February 2004.

Privert marked his second anniversary in jail on Thursday. He was arrested on April 6, 2004, on accusations he and Neptune masterminded what their political foes have called a massacre two months earlier in La Scierie, a village near the northern town of St-Marc. Both men have denied the accusations.

Preval, who won an election in February, has suggested he could issue a pardon to political prisoners. Many of them say they have done nothing they need to be pardoned for.

Copyright (C) 2006 Reuters Foundation.

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