Foreign Policy Blogs

Duvalier escapes trial for crimes against Humanity

Baby Doc looks out from the balcony of the elegant Karibe hotel in Port-au-Prince, January 2011

One year ago, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return to Haiti. As “president-for-life” for the second half of the 1971-86 Duvalier family succession, his rule was notorious for torturous treatment of political prisoners, unexplained disappearances and attacks on the press. Baby Doc was also a chubby sports-car loving playboy, whose glamorous wife spent state funds on furs and jewels. With his return in January 2011, the devilishly clownish dichotomy of the inner and outer workings of the regime picked up where it had left off 25 years before. Duvalier held a press conference in a decadent villa in the hills above Port-au-Prince claiming he had returned to help his people, while within days survivors of his regime’s brutality brought testimonies to the Haitian court accusing him of crimes against humanity.

Alix Fils-Aimé is a survivor who filed complaints in the court documenting the regime’s human rights abuses. He shared his story with this blog, describing near starvation, torturous interrogations, and the disappearances of fellow political prisoners.

Now, after a year of fine dining and hob-nobbing with the country’s elite for the supposedly house-arrested former dictator, and statements proclaiming accountability both a duty and an opportunity for the feeble Haitian courts from international human rights activists and lawyers, the judge has waved his report at journalists and said that Duvalier will not be tried for crimes against humanity, only for misappropriation of public funds. So far the report has not been made publicly available and no explanation has been given aside from a weak reference to passing the statute of limitations. Rights activists reply that prescription does not apply to crimes against humanity or cases concerning disappeared people.

“I had no doubt that the ruling would be such,” Alix Fils-Aimé stated. He described the Haitian court system “like going to the market, you get what your money can buy and sometimes what political influence can get you.” But filing the case was an important exercise for him, bringing light to the issue and putting it firmly in the public record. He said those who had filed complaints are contemplating their next moves, whether it be appealing in the Haitian court or taking the case to a regional human rights court.

Fils-Aimé sees corruption in Haitian courts as both ingrained and temporary. He expected a ruling dismissing his brutal experience, particularly under the administration of Michel Martelly who has political ties to Duvalier-era leaders. “I think everyone, the world over, all our friends and partners, and at the level of organizations, of lawyers and human rights associations, all governments, I think they all are fully aware of the truth, they realize that justice has been denied and realize fully now also that one cannot expect justice for what Duvalier has done, under the current regime.”

But Fils-Aimé says impunity in the Haitian justice system, while entrenched, is not inherent; “Things will evolve and things will be different.”

 

Author

Allyn Gaestel
Allyn Gaestel

Allyn Gaestel is a journalist focused on international affairs and human rights. She is currently in the United States finishing documentaries from India and the Caribbean. Previously she was based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and earlier worked as a United Nations correspondent in New York. Her background is in political science, public health, women's issues, and development. She has worked in Haiti, India, Senegal, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania and the Bahamas. You can follow Allyn on twitter @AllynGaestel

Great Decisions Discussion group