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Death Watch for Human Rights in Haiti


“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

More evidence of the death of human rights in Haiti has been unfolding this month as additional information comes out about the December 1, 2004 massacre in the Haitian National Penitentiary. The most recent troubling news is contained in a detailed investigation into the massacre conducted by the respected Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).

The IJDH report confirms the deteriorating condition of Haiti’s prisons in the face of dramatic increases in the number of Haitians who have been imprisoned without trials. The report concludes with reports that many more prisoners in the Haitian National Penitentiary may have been murdered earlier this month than the government admits – some eyewitnesses estimate dozens of prisoners were killed.

Haitian officials initially reported that seven prisoners were killed and dozens more shot by guards in the course of putting down a prison protest at the penitentiary. Officials have refused to give out an official list with the names of the persons killed either to the public or to family members. No independent investigation into the killings has been allowed.

The IJDH report is the most comprehensive investigation of the prison situation to date.

One eyewitness testified that he saw the bodies of 20 to 25 dead prisoners. Another guessed that he saw more than 60 prisoners killed.

IJDH notes that “for most of the dead, their assassination was the last in a long string of human rights violations. Only one in fifty is likely to have actually been convicted of committing a crime. The vast majority were likely arrested illegally without a warrant and detained on vague charges with no evidence in their file and no chance of judicial review of the detention.”

During the forced removal of the elected President of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide, the jails and prisons of Haiti were emptied. The unelected government has been filling them up with people associated with Aristide. In fact, the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission estimates that there may be as many as 700 political prisoners in Haiti.

My own recent experience in Haiti bears this out. I have been in the Haitian National Penitentiary several times in the past four months. It is a massive old concrete prison located right in the heart of downtown Port au Prince.

It was there that I visited with Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert in their cells. I visited Harold Severe, the former Mayor of Port au Prince, in the prison yard. I met with my client, Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, several times in the warden’s office. The conditions in the prison are very bad. And there are many, many people there who have never seen, and likely never will see, a judge.

I have witnessed the prison population grow more than 20% in my short time in Haiti. When I first visited the penitentiary, in late September of this year, there were 868 people in the prison, 21 of whom had been convicted of a crime. Prison officials advised me that “most had never seen a judge and do not know when they will see a judge.” (See full report of Pax Christi USA Fall 2004 Human Rights Visit to Haiti at ). In early December, nine weeks later, the penitentiary held 1041 people, 22 of whom had seen a judge.

This situation is not a surprise to international authorities. In late November, the UN Security Council expressed its concerns about arbitrary arrests and detentions in Haiti and called for the release of political prisoners. In November 2004, the United Nations official in charge of helping reform Haiti’s prisons quit his job in frustration. “It was worse than I have ever seen,” UN official Jacques Dyotte told Reed Lindsay of the Toronto Sun. The paper reported that floor space so tight that prisoners must take turns sleeping in shifts.

The IJDH report calls for an independent investigation by the United Nations that includes: autopsies of all prisoners killed; forensic medical exams of all injured prisoners and guards; independent interviews with prisoners and guards that include confidentiality protections for all those who seek it; examination of all records of the incident. Human rights groups and journalists should be given access to this material.

Right now in Haiti there are many prison cells holding over 20 prisoners. Many of these same cells have no beds and no toilets. The people in those cells have little chance of ever seeing a judge. Right now there are hundreds of families in Haiti who do not even know if family members in the national penitentiary are dead or alive.

The IJDH is correct, when it concludes in the final sentence of their investigation: “An effective investigation of the December 1 events becomes, therefore, not a test of investigative skill and resources as much as a test of investigative will.”

These prisoners and their conditions are not hidden. Many are out in the open. The United Nations knows about them. The Organization of American States knows about them. The United States government knows about them.

Human rights are dying in Haiti, who will do more than watch?

Dostoevsky’s quote above that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” is not an indictment of Haiti only. Dostoevksy is also speaking to the UN, the OAS, and to our government in the US, and ultimately to us.

(For a complete copy of the report on the Massacre at the Haitian National Penitentiary go to the website of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti ).

BILL QUIGLEY, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law, has visited Haiti four times in the last three months as one of the attorneys representing the recently freed Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste. He can be reached at:


Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at

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