In addition to the death and destruction caused by the recent hurricane and floods, there is another disaster going on in Haiti right now. It is a human rights disaster.
We just returned from Haiti with a human rights delegation for Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace movement. Our media has made us aware of the human toll from the flooding. What we are not so aware of is that there has been a coup in Haiti that continues to take a substantial human toll as well.
The forced exile of President Aristide earlier this year was effectively a coup that eliminated the constitutionally elected government of the people of Haiti. The elected government was replaced with an illegally appointed government of the minority with economic and military power, supported by the U.S., France and Canada.
As a result, human rights conditions are now worse in Haiti now then they have been in years.
The democratically elected government leaders and their supporters are in prison or have been made into refugees in their own country while former military, gangs and rebels affiliated with those in power are often allowed to do as they please.
We visited with several political prisoners in the National Penitentiary including the highest officials of the government of President Aristide: Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert, and the former Mayor of Port au Prince. The rule of law is being blatantly disregarded in their cases.
For example, Minister Privert has been held in the prison for six months and has yet to see a judge for formal charges, which by law should happen within 48 hours of arrest.
Prime Minister Neptune, who was arrested days after giving an interview critical of the government, has been in prison since June 2004.
An elected delegate of Parliament, Jacques Mathlier, was reportedly arrested for arson but after going before a judge he was ordered to be released on July 12. Instead the Ministry of Justice ordered him transferred to the National Penitentiary where he has remained in prison ever since.
The former mayor of Port au Prince was detained by the US military for 20 days in a boat offshore while the new powers established themselves – then he was transferred to the national penitentiary where he remains.
We also visited the women’s prison in Petion-Ville where 51 women are kept in a poorly lit concrete structure and met with activist Annette Auguste, a 69 year old folk singer also called “So Anne who supported President Aristide. She has been in prison since May 10, 2004.
Ms. Auguste and all of her family of fifteen, including children as young as 12, 10 and 5 years old, were illegally arrested in her home by US Marines. The Marines used grenades to break into the house in the middle of the night, forced black hoods onto the heads of all inside and bound their arms behind their backs with plastic handcuffs. While she was arrested and questioned by the US, she is now being held by the Haitian government and has never confronted her accusers. She told us “The Americans put me here, I am waiting for the Americans to set me free.
It is not just political opponents who are the victims of human rights violations.
Our delegation also visited a local police station in Port au Prince where 36 males were being kept in one concrete cell, 12 foot by 12 foot. None of those in the cell had formal charges, none had a lawyer, none had seen a judge, one had been in the cell since September 4. There is no medical care, and no food is provided. What food there is must be brought by families.
Mixed in the same small cell were children, adults, and people with mental problems and epilepsy. We met one 13 year old boy and two 15 year olds in the cell. Prisoners showed open sores on their legs, others showed injuries from physical brutality. Some told us no one in their family even knows they are in jail. They sleep standing up and leaning against the wall as there is no enough space for everyone to even sit down together much less lay down. The criminal law system which has never worked well for the poor is now being used for massive arrests in the poorest neighborhoods.
We are very concerned about the widespread re-emergence of the previously dissolved military, which has historically been a challenge to and oppressive to an independent civil society. The military has also often served as an avenue through which the U.S. has exerted power over Haiti.
We also met with many poor people in Port au Prince including some who were forced out of communities outside of Port au Prince (communities like Petite Goave and from the Central Plateau) as a result of the coup because they were perceived as supporters of President Aristide, the Fanmi Lavalas party, or protectors of human rights.
Opponents of the elected government came to town and killed the chief of police, burned down the police station and the prison. They then sought out supporters of the elected government, ransacked and burned their houses, placed black bags on their heads, executed them and dumped them in the river.
Many from outlying towns have fled to Port au Prince, others to the Dominican Republic. Another young man told us how he was beaten and threatened with execution for starting a school – he fled to Port au Prince where he now stays in one room with 15 others.
A woman and her family were attacked and had to flee because they were thought to have spoken to human rights visitors and foreign journalists and voiced criticism of the government – they have been sleeping on the roof of a friend’s house.
They showed us pictures of their burned homes which were ransacked and destroyed by former militaries and opposition gangs. One person who went back just the week before to take photos of the damaged homes was murdered for doing that.
People have lost businesses and property – they are now homeless and living in fear and hiding with anyone who will shelter them. They are refugees in their own country. There are hundreds more from their area in the same situation and thousands more from other small outlying communities.
Journalists, human rights workers, teachers, church workers, and labor unions are being threatened regularly and are clearly at risk.
National elected independent union leaders reported that the situation of workers has always been difficult with the bosses as adversaries, but now is worse because the government is aligned with the bosses and is also an adversary. Workers in businesses affiliated with the new powers in government are intimidated and forced to appear to be supportive of the new government in order to keep their jobs. The situation for workers is much, much worse since the exile of President Aristide.
Within days of our visit, police with black masks attacked the office of a large labor organization and arrested 9 people who are being held without charges.
We visited a cooperative community school in Petion-Ville, called SOPUDEP, which educates about 700 mostly poor children. Because the school was started by the community during the time of President Aristide, those now in power are threatening to revoke its lease. In early September of 2004, the newly appointed mayor of the town showed up at the school with armed guards. Only after a demonstration by community people and pressure by a US Senator has the pressure against the school has been scaled back.
Our delegation strongly concluded that the rule of law is being disregarded in the exile, arrest, beatings, executions, and detention of the people who were democratically chosen by the people of Haiti to govern. People affiliated with the elected government and those concerned about human rights have been beaten and arrested and homes burned and run off to live in hiding. The Haitian constitution and international law are being openly violated. We agree with the people that the rule of law must be reinstated.
The international community must help restore the elected representatives of the people. This means explicitly the return of President Aristide and the release of all political prisoners.
Human rights in Haiti needs immediate international attention. Current people in power have said publicly that local human rights organizations are stirring up troubles – a threatening warning to stop human rights investigations. International human rights groups must step up monitoring human rights and protect those on the ground who are trying to do so.
We challenge the role of the international community, particularly the US in Haiti. It does not appear that the primary concern of US policy in Haiti has been democracy, human rights, or fairness to the poor and powerless. It should be and all Americans should insist that our policy help protect democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the protection of the poor.
We believe that if all the people of the world saw what we saw, they would insist that justice be done for Haiti. We ask the world to look at the people of Haiti as our sisters and brothers. Recognizing that our sisters and brothers are in serious trouble, we must all work together to help them bring justice to their country.
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton is the Auxiliary Bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit.
Bill Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. Bill can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The full report of the Pax Christi Haiti Human Rights Visit is available on the website of Pax Christi USA at www.paxchristiusa.org