The Search for Justice for Haiti’s Yvon Neptune and His Fellow Inmates: All Political Prisoners

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René Préval has an enormous task ahead of him, as he picks up the reins of a battered and demoralized nation – one that is in the ER, almost terminal. Reforming the Haitian judicial system, however, is perhaps the most critical of his multiple burdens due to its near ruinous condition. To this day, disgracefully enough, many political prisoners, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, under President Jean Bertrand Aristide, remain in jail, along with a number of his senior colleagues, while they wait for the democratic transition to eventually provide a fair judicial outcome. Numerous publicly-spirited lawyers and human rights workers, outraged by the arbitrary and vindictive behavior of Bernard Gousse, the former justice minister under the now replaced hapless interim Haitian government, have attempted to prevent scores of innocent individuals associated with former President Aristide and his Lavalas party from being persecuted in the aftermath of the U.S., French, UN, and Canadian-sanctioned February 2004 de facto coup.

Before Haiti can truly move forward and President Préval can begin to consolidate the fleeting prospect for democracy offered by his victory at the polls, the question of injustice under the ill-reputed, U.S.-backed Latortue interim government must be addressed. For Préval, it is of utmost importance, for both his own legitimacy and his country’s dignity, that worthy public figures, such as Prime Minister Neptune and some of his immediate associates, have all charges against them immediately dropped. Washington and Ottawa were integral participants in the process that divested Haiti of its democratic rule, for they legitimized Aristide’s illegal ouster. Disgracefully enough, the Aristide-era prisoners have been and mostly remain today imprisoned under harsh conditions.

No Picture in the Dungeon
Neptune began his incarceration in June 2004, after being accused, but not formally charged, with participating in a massacre in the neighborhood of La Scierie, shortly after Aristide’s fall in February 2004. In fact, UN human rights expert Louis Joinet has declared that the deaths at La Scierie were a result of a clash between pro and anti-Aristide factions. One year later, Neptune was placed under the charge of UN peacekeeping forces, but was later, upon his insistence, transferred back to the custody of Haitian officials. His position at the time was that he didn’t want to receive any special treatment from what he considered an illegal government. In April 2005, still under Latortue rule, Neptune began a hunger strike, demanding the full lifting of all charges against him.

Neptune had little hope of release or a fair trial under Latortue and Gousse. Attorney Brian Concannon, a highly regarded human rights proponent during Aristide’s rule and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, has reported that Neptune is refusing to be represented by counsel, or otherwise to cooperate with the Latortue-Gousse justice system, which had persecuted him in violation of its own rules. Neptune has also refused any presidential pardon, instead insisting that all spurious claims against him being dropped. Given the demonstrable failings of Haiti’s judicial system, as well as the baleful legacy of the Gousse-era, Neptune has refused to cooperate with the former regime, and has limited himself to working with co-defendants to apply political pressure, including writing a letter to President Préval.

On May 9, 2006, an appeal process initiated in September by Neptune and his co-defendants was heard by the Haitian courts, and finally on May 23, the appeals process was concluded. Mario Joseph, representing the political prisoners, asked that the charges be dropped, while calling for their immediate provisional release on their personal recognizance. Even though the government prosecutor acquiesced to the release request, the justices hearing the case did not reach a decision until one month after the appeal, despite the obvious straightforward nature of the petition. Such rank judicial incompetence is more than appalling, particularly because of all the suffering that the defendants had to go through over their protracted ordeal.

On June 13, the justices granted a provisional release to another inmate, former Minister of Interior Jocelerme Privert; however, Neptune was denied release based on the notion that his request was not made on time. Any conceivable justification for the denial is beyond being contrived; it was simply a matter of insolence, as there was no reason to believe Neptune was a flight risk, since his concern for justice above all else is indisputable. For example, Neptune turned himself in during the month of June in 2004 and then again in February 2005, after he was forced out of prison at gunpoint during a jailbreak attempt instigated by others. Furthermore, Neptune once refused the government’s offer to fly him out of the country for medical treatment (with the obvious implication that he could fade into the countryside whenever he wanted) because the offer did not include dropping charges against him. Sadly, the kind of personal integrity that Neptune has demonstrated is in such scarce supply when it comes to Haiti’s courts, with it all too often being found concentrated in the defendants, rather than in the judges.

RNDDH: In-Humane, not Human Rights
Many of the deep flaws surrounding Neptune’s case, including the protracted delay in the opening and resolution of the appellate trial, can be traced to the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), a sinister organization that continually has pressured the government to retain its political prisoners in jail, perhaps because it facilitated some of their arrests four years ago. The RNDDH used to be known as the National Coalition for Human Rights in Haiti (whose parent organization NCHR is based in New York) and ostensibly was originally committed to the promotion of human rights. By 2004, however, the Haitian branch of the organization had become increasingly politicized and fell under the influence of anti-Aristide Haiti-hardliners in the Canadian and U.S. governments.

During and after the 2004 coup, in which Canada and the U.S. played a defining part, the NCHR-Haiti denounced many individuals, and even had an arrangement with the head prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, by which any individual accused by the NCHR-Haiti would be subject to prosecution. Yvon Neptune was one of those who was unfortunate enough to be on that list. Countless individuals, many whose only crime was a loose affiliation with Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party, were arrested by the interim government based on false accusations entered by the NCHR-Haiti. When the NCHR-Haiti’s parent organization responded to the mounting number of accusations by forcing the abusive faction within its organization to be separated from the parent body, the former NCHR-Haiti became the RNDDH, a body which is now mainly funded by the Canadian government, specifically for the La Scierie case.

Foreign Disservice
Canada’s backing of the RNDDH could not be more bizarre. Recently, Canada gave over $15 million to Haitian NGOs to improve the government and justice system, most likely involving the RNDDH. According to Concannon, the highly compromised “human rights” organization receives Ottawa funding, and additional revenue from the U.S. It was these three countries, together with Kofi Anan and the UN mechanism, which legitimized the notorious rump interim regime of Gerard Latortue, and which also arranged for the de facto ouster of constitutionalist Haitian president—President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February of 2004. Shortly after the accusations against Neptune were released by the NCHR-Haiti, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) announced an additional $100,000 in funding to the organization to specifically pursue the La Scierie case. Such international support was particularly distressing, when considering how Aristide, in the months before his end, was cut off from most foreign assistance, which led to the economic asphyxiation of his government and the truncation of its political options.

Collective Outrage
The Haitian government’s squalid handling of Neptune’s case has attracted outrage from a number of quarters. One year ago, UN Special Envoy Juan Gabriel Valdes took up Neptune’s cause, saying to Reuters, “Our appreciation of the legal system and the procedures followed indicate to us that it would be perfectly possible to release Mr. Neptune from prison even if his case continued to be processed…We believe that serious attention should be given to Neptune’s release.” Even Roger Noriega, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs wrote a letter to the St. Petersburg Times in May 2005 stating, “The United States has repeatedly expressed its concerns about the health and well-being of former Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. We have also repeatedly expressed our concerns to Haiti’s Interim Government that Mr. Neptune’s case has not been processed expeditiously in accord with the Haitian constitution.” Fifteen congressmen and the Caribbean Community regional bloc (CARICOM) have all called for Neptune’s immediate release.

Haiti’s Judicial Ineptness Branches Out
The former Haitian regime’s judicial misdemeanors extend far beyond the inexcusable treatment of prominent former Aristide officials. Other dignitaries jailed include Annette August; a grandmotherly activist nicknamed “Sister Anne” by her neighbors. The Village Voice reported shortly after Aristide’s ouster, that a detachment of U.S. Marines showed up at August’s Port-au-Prince home and arrested her along with her four children. In addition, Lavalas leader Father Gerard Jean-Juste remained in prison indefinitely, charged with the July 2005 murder of journalist Jacques Roche, even though Amnesty International has pointed out that Jean-Juste was in Miami at the time. Charges are still being ledged against Jean-Juste, however, he was released in January under a humanitarian exception for leukemia treatment.

Last-call for Justice
René Préval, in his short time in office, has already made important strides towards reforming the judicial system. Préval purged the corrupt, former interim cabinet, and replaced it with a new one made up of ministers experienced in democratic processes. On June 8, 2006, the Haitian parliament approved the new cabinet, including a new minister of justice, with the deplorable Justice Minister Gousse now a distant, if execrable memory. Préval, however, has so far failed to take a stand against the ongoing judicial ineptness in Haiti. As Attorney Concannon notes, all the cases of the political prisoners are before the judges, who were put in place by the former interim government, leaving Préval little room to maneuver. The new Haitian president must work with the judicial system in order to achieve fair results, instead of pulling everyone out of prison, an illegal interference on the judicial system, which would greatly tarnish Préval’s image. Any reforms, however, must be coupled with the instant release of all political prisoners, with Washington and Ottawa partially redressing their past sins by immediately throwing their support behind such a move. Préval’s efforts at introducing civic rectitude to the country will be neutralized as long as Canada and the U.S. continue to fund the RNDDH and tacitly consent to the continued support of the imprisonment of Neptune and his co-defendants. Under any circumstances, Neptune and all the other political prisoners must not spend an additional moment in jail, if justice is to be served.