More calls to free former Haitian prime minister

Despite mounting pressure for his release, deposed Haitian Prime Minister Yvon Neptune remains in custody and is continuing a prolonged hunger strike in protest against his yearlong detention without trial. After going before a judge on May 25, he still has not been charged with committing any crime.

Neptune, 58, was jailed by the interim government of Gerard Latortue a few months after the U.S.-backed ouster of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004. He has languished in prison ever since. His current hunger strike, his second while in custody, began on April 17. Eyewitnesses say he is emaciated and physically weak.

Ronald St. Jean of the Haiti-based group Defense of Political Prisoners’ Rights said June 21 that Judge Clune Pierre Jules had dismissed all charges against Neptune and ordered his release from jail. This news was corroborated by Brian Concannon Jr. of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, who said he received a “reliable report” stating that the U.S. State Department thinks the judge ordered Neptune’s release.

However, Marguerite Laurence of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network said, “There are reports that the Latortue government is interfering with this judicial order and delaying further by demanding that Jules reconsider his decision.”

The World repeatedly called the Ministry of Justice but no one was available to comment on Neptune’s situation. An Interior Ministry official said he had no knowledge of Neptune’s status.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Neptune is currently being held in a villa guarded by and paid for by UN military forces, where he remains bedridden.

The U.S.-installed government arrested Neptune on June 27, 2004, after the National Coalition of Haitian Rights (NCHR) — since renamed the “National Network of Human Rights Defenders” — and another group alleged that Neptune ordered the massacre of government opponents in the town of La Scierie on Feb. 11 of that year.

Neptune emphatically denied the allegation, and Louis Joinet, a UN human rights investigator, has indirectly backed Neptune’s stance. After visiting La Scierie this April, Joinet rejected the allegation that a massacre took place in that town on the date in question and instead found that a spontaneous conflict between pro- and anti-Aristide groups had erupted, resulting in casualties on both sides.

The NCHR is by no means an impartial body, critics say. According to Canada-based journalist Anthony Fenton, the NCHR participated in the U.S.-led destabilization campaign against the elected Lavalas government of President Aristide and has turned a blind eye to current violations of human rights under the Latortue regime.

Fenton said, “Nothing speaks clearer toward the true role of NCHR in carrying out partisan human rights investigations than their explicit refusal to carry out investigations of summary executions and massacres that are known to be have been perpetrated by U.S. Marines and Haitian National Police in poor neighborhoods since February 2004.”

A wide range of voices, from the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) countries to Amnesty International, have demanded that Neptune be immediately brought to trial or released.

During a June 24 visit to Haiti, Juan Gabriel Valdes, a special envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said, “It is very difficult to understand how someone can be held in prison for a year without clear accusations against him. The way we understand the legal system and the procedures, we see no reason why Yvon Neptune should not be freed, even when the investigation is under way.”