Harrowing Hours in Haiti
On Thursday July 21, 2005, Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste went to St. Pierre’s Catholic Church to be one of the priests participating in the funeral of Haitian journalist Jacques Roche. Fr. Jean-Juste is a cousin of the Roche family and members of the Roche family protected him from a mob earlier in his life. He went to express spiritual comfort and reconciliation to the family.
The tragic kidnaping and death of Jacques Roche has been taken up as a cause by those opposed to the Lavalas party. Jacques Roche was identified as a supporter of the people calling themselves the group of 184, who overthrew by force the democratically elected goverment of President Aristide, the leader of the Lavalas party, in February 2004.
Oppononents of Aristide say that because the body of Jacques Roche was found in a poor neighborhood that he was executed by the Lavalas party who is very strong in the poorest neighborhoods. For those of us in the US, this is much like blaming John Kerry for inner city deaths because most of the people in the inner city vote democratic.
Fr. Jean-Juste went to the funeral expressly to pay his respects to the family and express his open remorse and opposition to any killing of anyone, no matter their political affiliation.
Jacques Roche’s coffin was in the chapel next to the sacristy and main area of the chuch. At 10 o’clock the bishop and about seven priests robed in white with purple stoles or sashes paraded out of the sacristy of the church to the chapel next to the main area of the church to say blessings over the coffin of Jacques Roche.
When Fr. Jean-Juste walked out, people started yelling at him in the chapel. They called him "assasin" and "criminal" and yelled out to "arrest and kill the rat."
Fr. Jean-Juste has been publicly accused in the last several days of "a plot against the security of the state," smuggling money and guns into the country, and of being behind all the kidnappings. All clearly false charges but widely reported by unfriendly press.
People knew Fr. Jean-Juste was coming to the funeral because that was printed on the front page of a conservative paper the day before.
As the well-dressed people continued yelling at Fr. Jean-Juste, the prayer service nearly turned into a riot. The other priests turned to leave and a well-dressed crowd of screaming people surrounded him. I went out to be by his side. Some plainclothes security people and a few priests surrounded us and helped push us through the increasingly hostile crowd back into the church sacristy.
The other priests then persuaded Fr. Jean-Juste not to continue in the funeral service. So we stood aside as the priests and the funeral crowd filed past us into the main church.
Well-dressed men and women continued to scream and threaten Fr. Gerry as they moved by us into the church. Then a crowd of 15 or 20 or more young men, not dressed at all for the funeral came into the sacristy and the mood turned uglier and more menacing. At that point, the security forces melted away.
The young men continued the screaming started by the well-dressed people and then started pushing and hitting Pere Jean-Juste. At that point a young woman came out of the funeral crowd and embraced Fr. Jean-Juste shielding him with her body from the blows and the increasingly loud and angry young men. She started praying loudly and saying "mon pere, mon pere."
A man in a suit, who identified himself as head of security for the funeral, rushed back in from the church area – only a few feet away and in plain view -and told Fr. Gerry these people were going to kill him there in the sacristy unless he fled. Fr. Jean-Juste knelt to pray and the woman and I knelt with him in the middle of the growing crowd.
At that point people started slapping Fr. Jean-Juste on the head and face and spitting on him and the other two of us. Something then hit Fr. Jean-Juste in the head. Someone punched him in the eye. We stood up and a few UN CIVPOL officers showed up to help us leave the sacristy of the church. As we tried to get to the stairs people continued pushing and screaming and shouting threats. They continued to call out "assasin," "criminal," and "kill the rat."The crowd now overwhelmed the police. More people spit on us and hit Fr. Gerry, even in the face, while others were grabbing his church vestments trying to drag him off the church steps.
The CIVPOL were trying to hold back the crowd but were still well outnumbered and were not able to halt the mob. We moved up the steps into a narrow dark corridor while the crowd pushed and shoved and spit and hit. We then retreated into a smaller corridor and finally to a dead end that contained two small concrete toilet stalls.
The three of us were pushed into the stalls as the crowd banged on the walls and doors of the stalls and continued screaming. The woman held the door closed and prayed loudly as the people outside roared and the CIVPOL called for reinforcements.
After a few minutes, reinforcements arrived and the hallway was finally cleared of all but us and the authorities.
A man in a suit identifying himself as secretary for security for Haiti told us that he was going to have to arrest Fr. Jean-Juste because public clamor had identified him as the assasin of journalist Jacques Roche. The police would bring him to the police station for his own safety. Fr. Jean-Juste told the man that he was in Florida when the journalist was killed and he wanted to return to St. Claire’s, his parish. The man left escorting out the woman who helped us.
In a few minutes, CIVPOL police, including troops from Jordan, surrounded Fr. Jean-Juste and I and ran us out of the church to a police truck. The truck with police with machine guns sped away from the church and took us not to Fr. Gerry’s parish but to the police station in Petitionville.
For the next seven or eight hours we were kept in a room while the UN forces and the Haitian forces negotiated about what to do. Fr. Gerry read his prayer book while we waited. We were told informally that the UN wanted to escort Fr. Jean-Juste back to his parish but the Haitian government was insisting that he be arrested.
The attackers were allowed to go free and not arrested, but they wanted to arrest the victim!
Fr. Gerry told me "This is all a part of the death sentence called down upon me on the radio in Miami. The searches at the airport, the visits to the police stations, the mandate to appear before a criminal judge yesterday, and now this. It is all part of the effort to silence my voice for democracy."
At about 6pm, several Haitian officers came into our room and ordered Fr. Gerry and I and Haitian attorney Mario Joseph to come with them.
The officers held out a piece of paper that they said was an official complaint against Fr. Gerry accusing him of being the assasin of Jacques Roche. The complaint was based on "public clamor" at the funeral identifying him as the murderer. They refused to let Fr. Jean-Juste or the lawyers see this paper. It was their obligation, they said, to investigate this public clamor identifying him as the murderer. If Fr. Jean-Juste chose not to talk with them, they would put him in jail immediately.
Fr. Jean-Juste agreed to the interrogation and it went on for over three hours. He was growing increasingly sore and tired from the beating he took, but was not bleeding externally. When the lawyers argued with the police, Fr. Gerry read his prayer book.
The police already knew that Fr. Jean-Juste was in Florida at the time of the kidnapping and death of the journalist, because the police had already interviewed him several times in the last few days in connection with the other false allegations against him, but asked him many questions anyway. How many cell phones did he have? What is his exact relation to Jacques Roche? Why did he go to the funeral? Can he prove he was in Florida? Since he was on the news in Florida can he provide a copy of the newstape showing he was in Florida? When Aristide was president was he provided with armed security? What happened to the pistols that his secutity had? Could he find out and have any pistols returned to the government? Why did he go to the funeral? Did Lavalas promise Aristide to execute someone from the group of 184 in retaliation for them taking power? When was the last time he was in the US? Are the Catholic sisters in Bel-Air with you when you got to demonstrations there? and on and on.
After over three hours, the interrogation finished.
With great solemnity the police told Fr. Jean-Juste that he was being charged with participating in the death of Jacques Roche and not returning state property. The said the law orders that he will be brought before a judge within 48 hours for further decision.
At exactly 10pm, Fr. Gerry handed me his keys and church vestments and was locked into the jail cell at Petionville with many, many others. He was holding a pink plastic rosary, his prayer book and a roll of toilet paper.
He flashed a tired smile and told me: "Now you see what we are up against in Haiti. If they treat me like this, think how they treat the poor people. Tell everyone that with the help of God and everyone else I will keep up the good fight. Everyone else should continue to fight for democracy as well. The truth will come out. I am innocent of all charges. I will be free soon. Freedom for Haiti is coming. The struggle continues."
As I left him, a very tired Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste was being greeted by all the prisoners in the very crowded jail cell as "mon pere!"
Action: Write or fax UN Special Representative Juan Gabriel Valdés, urging him to release MINUSTAH’s prison report immediately, and to resist pressure from the Haitian police to minimize the number of casualties. A sample letter is below. Mr. Valdés speaks English, French and Spanish. His fax number is (dial 011 first from the US for an international line) 509 244 3512.
BILL QUIGLEY is a volunteer lawyer for Fr. Jean-Juste along with Mario Joseph of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. To contact Fr. Jean Juste call 509.405.3244. Quigley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.