Haitis justice system in collapse

Two years after a U.S.-backed coup ousted democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s judicial system is in a state of collapse.

According to William Quigley, law professor at Loyola University of New Orleans, “The justice system is in shambles at this point, worse than six months ago when it was terrible — no trials are being held and none anticipated. People who are arrested can only expect jail unless they are willing to try to bribe their way out. All justice is being put on hold until after the elections,” slated for mid-December at the earliest.

A good case study is Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest associated with Aristide’s Lavalas movement. Quigley spent time in Haiti last year helping defend Jean-Juste, who had been charged with “inciting violence” and other offenses because, his supporters say, he opposed the U.S.-installed regime of Gerard Latortue and stood up for the rights of the poor.

While a judge eventually threw out the charges for lack of evidence, Jean-Juste was re-arrested this year and is currently sitting in jail without being charged with any crime.

Brian D. Concannon Jr., director of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, agrees the justice system has collapsed. “Everyone is ignoring the constitution, from the prime minister to the minister of justice, the judges and prosecutors,” he said. He estimates the government is holding over 100 political prisoners.

However, a human rights monitor based in Haiti, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the number of political prisoners is higher.

“Amnesty [International] generally defines a prisoner of conscience as someone in detention solely because of their political beliefs, actions or affiliations,” the source said. “Prisoners who fit this category are not numerous.”

At the same time, the typical prisoner is a male between the ages of 17-30 who is sitting in prison simply because he comes from a poor neighborhood where the Lavalas Party enjoys strong support, and therefore is seen as a party supporter, the source said. “Their detention can be seen as part of a larger campaign of repression against the poor, but international human rights groups would not likely categorize them as prisoners of conscience.”

Another example of the justice system’s breakdown occurred recently with jailed deposed Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. After being held for over a year without being charged, Neptune finally won a court ruling that a judge should try him for his alleged offenses. However, UN human rights monitor Thierry Faggart said that the constitution requires that Neptune be tried by a jury.

Faggart noted that, in general, the justice system “barely functions” and that “the state of the judiciary is so bad that people have lost all hope in it.”

While critics blame the collapse of Haiti’s judicial system on the country’s interim government, they also say the U.S. and Canada share responsibility. In the report, “Haiti: Human Rights Investigations,” released earlier this year by the University of Miami Law School, then-Deputy Minister of Justice Philippe Vixamar told investigators that the U.S. and Canada are playing key roles in the justice system, paying the salaries of high officials. He also said that the Canadian International Development Agency had assigned him his job and was paying his salary.

In addition, Canadian police lead the UN police mission responsible for training and overseeing the Haitian National Police (HNP), which commits regular human rights abuses, including massacres, human rights groups charge. According to the Catholic Institute for International Relations, “Many of the 5,000-strong force have links to the previous military or have been involved in drugs rackets, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings or other illegal activities.” The U.S. supplies arms to the HNP.

Concannon said that since the U.S. overthrew Aristide in February 2004, “the human rights problems of a dictatorship have returned with a vengeance, to the great detriment of most Haitians.”