Many political prisoners still held in Haitis jails

One year after taking office, Haitian President Rene Preval is inching closer to releasing all political prisoners, but he is not moving nearly fast enough for Pierre Antoine Lovinsky.

“Under the pretext of not wanting to interfere in the justice system, the government does not want to take measures to correct anomalies [to free all political prisoners],” Lovinsky charged in a recent e-mail interview from Haiti. Lovinsky, a psychologist, is director of the Port-au-Prince-based September 30th Foundation, which helps victims of political repression obtain justice and compensation.

Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, shares Lovinsky’s impatience. “Many high-profile political prisoners have been released,” he said. “However, there are still political prisoners in jail and their continuing detention is worrisome.” Quigley, an adviser to the legal defense team of former political prisoner and ousted Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, added, “Serious concerns remain about the honesty and politics of both the judiciary and the police.”

Under the former U.S./Canadian/French-installed interim government of Gerard Latortue, the Haitian National Police (HNP) killed and imprisoned thousands of supporters of the ousted center-left government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Many were jailed on trumped up charges or with no charges at all.

Brian Concannon Jr. of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti agreed that the continued incarceration of political prisoners in Haiti is a serious problem, but emphasized that the human rights climate has improved dramatically.

“Large-scale repression and political violence has stopped,” Concannon said. “Dozens of political prisoners have been released ... and systematic arrests of political opponents has stopped. There are, of course, remaining political prisoners, but at least people feel they can demonstrate and mobilize for the prisoners’ freedom without fear of reprisal.”

Concannon also said the justice system, while better today, is in dire need of reform.

Kevin Pina of the San Francisco-based Haiti Information Network does not fault the Preval government for its slowness in releasing political prisoners, but instead blames the U.S. and Canada for meddling in Haitian affairs. Pina has lived in Haiti, where he worked as a journalist from 1999 until March 2006. He is also married to a Haitian woman and speaks Creole.

Pina charges that the Preval government “has no sovereign powers to take any initiative. The U.S. Embassy still runs the country.” U.S.- and Canada-backed nongovernmental organizations that helped engineer the coup against Aristide are still deeply embedded within Haiti’s ministries, he said.

However, as was the case during Preval’s first term as president (1996-2001), “the most important thing the Preval government is providing communities with is space for them to rebuild and heal,” Pina said.

Under the previous interim government, the HNP, often backed by United Nations Stabilization Mission (Minustah) forces, regularly attacked poor neighborhoods, killing and wounding many innocent people. The HNP also regularly opened fire on demonstrators demanding Aristide’s return from Africa.

The situation changed with Preval’s election in 2006. However, Lovinsky said that there are still many unresolved problems within the HNP’s ranks, including involvement in drug trafficking and crime and the presence of former members of the disbanded brutal military. “The crimes committed by police during the previous interim government continue to go unpunished,” he said.

Preval has been less successful in curbing the Brazilian-led Minustah force’s violent behavior. Minustah forces assaulted the poor Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cite Soliel on Dec. 22 with the supposed goal of combating armed gangs. According to the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, trigger-happy blue-helmeted UN soldiers, firing wildly into the crowded slum, killed 20 civilians and wounded several times that number.

Cite Soleil’s Red Cross coordinator, Pierre Alexis, told the Haitian News Agency that UN soldiers also blocked Red Cross ambulances from entering the area to treat the wounded.

Lovinsky said, “They (Minustah) continue committing assassinations in districts like Cite Soleil, trying to force people to their knees, particularly in areas where ex-President Aristide enjoys great support.”

tpelzer @ shaw.ca