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Yvon Neptune’s last meal may have been on April 17. Haiti’s most recent constitutional Prime Minister, now its most prominent political prisoner, stopped eating eighteen days ago to protest ten months of illegal imprisonment. He is weak, emaciated and near death-his internal organs are failing. He has vowed not to eat until the Interim Government of Haiti (IGH) drops the charges against him that it has refused to pursue. The IGH, coming under increasing pressure and looking for a compromise, offered to fly Neptune out of the country for medical treatment and exile over the weekend. But the government would not drop the charges, so Neptune refused to leave.
The IGH has chosen a precarious place to take this stand. Neptune was arrested pursuant to a valid warrant last June 27 (he turned himself in when he heard about it on the radio), but since then the government has not taken even the first step in prosecuting the case against him. Although Haiti’s constitution requires that a judge confirm any detention within forty-eight hours, 155 forty-eight hour periods have elapsed without Neptune seeing the judge on his case.
There is scant evidence that the crime of which Mr. Neptune is accused, the so-called “La Scierie Massacre” even happened. The accusations arose out of violence in the provincial city of St. Marc in February, 2004, during a rebellion against Mr. Neptune’s government. On February 7, an armed anti-government group called RAMICOS took over the St. Marc police station. Two days later, police reinforcements reclaimed the station, and that afternoon the Prime Minister flew to the city to give a press conference and try to reassure the population. Two days after that, on February 11, RAMICOS clashed again with police and with members of Bale Wouze, a pro-government group, in the St. Marc neighborhood of La Scierie. By almost all accounts, a few people on both sides were killed. By many accounts the majority of deaths were on the RAMICOS side. No one has presented evidence that Mr. Neptune was involved with the clash in any way.
Two weeks later, Neptune’s boss, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had been kidnapped to the Central African Republic on a U.S. government jet, and Marines controlled Haiti. Mr. Neptune stayed in office for a few days and cooperated with the occupation to install the unelected IGH, hoping to avoid further bloodshed. In the meantime, a non-governmental organization called NCHR-Haiti, an IGH ally and ferocious critic of Neptune’s government, announced that there had been a massacre in La Scierie in which 50 people had been killed.
Journalists who were in St. Marc on February 11 and 12 reported no sign of such a massacre. Louis Joinet, the UN Human Rights Commission Independent Expert on Haiti, concluded there was no massacre, but a fight between two groups. But NCHR-Haiti insisted that the case be prosecuted. The IGH, which had an agreement with NCHR-Haiti to prosecute anyone the organization denounced, obliged by arresting Mr. Neptune along with the former Minister of the Interior, a former member of Parliament and several others.
NCHR-Haiti received a $100,000 grant from the Canadian government (one of the IGH’s three main supporters, along with the U.S. and France) to pursue the La Scierie case. The organization hired a lawyer and former opposition Senator to represent the victims, and kept up the pressure in the press, even denouncing the government for allowing Neptune to receive medical treatment at a UN hospital. The persecution of Neptune went so far that NCHR-Haiti’s parent organization in the U.S. publicly disowned it and requested it to change its name.
In the meantime, Neptune had an adventurous ten months in prison. He survived at least two reported assassination attempts, a December massacre by guards and police in a nearby cellblock, a February prison break in which he was removed from the prison at gunpoint (he turned himself in, again, as soon as he could), and a three-week hunger strike. He was not brought to court.
The Interim Government keeps Neptune in jail for a case it declines to pursue and cannot prove despite an impressive mobilization of world opinion. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN Security Council, the CARICOM countries, human rights groups like Amnesty International, religious leaders and ordinary citizens throughout the world have called on the IGH to let Neptune go to trial or let him go free. Even U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, one of the regime’s most steadfast foreign supporters, announced as far back as July that the IGH needed to prove its case or drop it.
If the IGH is taking a stand on precarious ground, so is Mr. Neptune. His enormous and dangerous sacrifice has not gained much media attention for him or his cause. If he accepted the offer of exile, he could fight indefinitely from abroad, if he dies he will complete his enemies’ efforts to silence him. Starving to death will not clear his name, which is unnecessary anyway because it is obvious that there never was a case against him.
But Neptune’s hunger strike is not really about clearing his name, it is about clearing everyone off the fences. The Haitian government tries to have its cake and eat it too, by locking its enemies up, without having to prove they did anything wrong. Hundreds of political prisoners sit in Haiti’s jails, many with a judge’s release order sitting in their files. Next to most of them, Yvon Neptune is fortunate- with their lower profiles, they could hunger strike to the bitter end without anyone outside of Haiti noticing. Even those prisoners are fortunate, next to the hundreds, if not thousands of others that the Haitian police have executed on the spot in the last year, for demonstrating peacefully, organizing for democracy, or for being young and male in a poor neighborhood. Neptune’s hunger strike is forcing the government to choose, to choose between releasing an opponent it hates or going down in history with his blood on its hands.
Mr. Neptune is also trying to clear the IGH’s international patrons off the fence. The U.S., France, Canada and the UN admit that Neptune’s treatment is a human rights violation, and occasionally call for his release. But words are not enough, especially when those speaking them continue to provide the murderous IGH with financial and diplomatic support, arming its police, and paying the salaries of top ministry of justice officials. If any of the U.S., France or Canada announced that it would withhold financial support as long as Neptune remained in prison (or threatened to bundle the interim President to the Central African Republic) he would be free immediately. Neptune’s strike is forcing these countries to choose between their friends in the IGH or their professed human rights principles.
Neptune’s strike is also forcing the citizens of the U.S., Canada and France off the fence, by asking us to decide how long we will let our governments promote in Haiti what we would never allow at home. We believe in justice and democracy, and in the freeing of prisoners of conscience. But belief is not enough, especially when our tax dollars are financing the persecution of Yvon Neptune and so many others. We will need to choose whether we either become agents of Neptune’s liberation by insisting that our governments make every effort to free him, or continue to passively pay for his imprisonment.
There are signs of motion along the fence-line. The exile offer shows that the IGH certainly fears the consequences of Neptune’s death, and that its international patrons probably do. Neptune is also getting help with his fence-clearing: over the last week a passel of petitions and action alerts passed over the internet, and by hand in Haiti, North America and France have spurred hundreds of people to tug their governments off on the side of justice for Yvon Neptune. But hundreds have not been enough- thousands may be needed, and time for Yvon Neptune is running out.
Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. directs the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), which has filed a Petition on behalf of Yvon Neptune before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. More information about Neptune’s case, including resources for action are on www.ijdh.org.