Death Threats Against Lancet’s Haiti Human Rights Investigator

“You are a dog … you should die. We are going to necklace you,” whispered a British-accented caller into the phone. It was the latest in a round of death threats that Athena Kolbe, Human Rights Investigator and Master’s level social worker at Wayne State University, had received. According to police officials, Kolbe first began receiving threatening calls at home and on her cell phone at 4:00 AM on the morning of Monday September 4.

Kolbe, who co-coordinated a human rights study carried out in late 2005 by the Wayne State University School of Social Work with Dr. Royce Hutson, led a team of twelve Haitian interviewers in surveying 1260 randomly selected households in the greater Port-au-Prince area. The Haitian researchers interviewed Port-au-Prince residents about their experiences with human rights abuses since the installation of Gerald Latortue as interim Prime Minister following the violent overthrow of Haiti’s elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The Lancet article titled “Human Rights Abuse and Other Criminal Violations in Port-au-Prince Haiti: A Random Survey of Households” exposes massive human rights violations in Haiti, under the foreign-installed interim government of Gerald Latortue. It estimates that 8000 persons were murdered and approximately 35000 sexually assaulted in the greater Port-au-Prince area between February 2004 and December 2005. More than 90% percent of the sexual assaults reported in the study-involved penetration, explained the authors. The study first became public knowledge on August 30 when Pacifica Radio’s Flashpoints aired an interview with Kolbe and Royce discussing the findings of the survey. It has stirred controversy ever since.

Days after an interview with Flashpoints’ Dennis Bernstein, Charles Arthur, president of the UK’s Haiti Support Group, denounced Kolbe as a “pro-Lavalas Family journalist” implying that Kolbe manipulated the survey findings. Articles about the study were quickly published in the Guardian and the Toronto Globe and Mail in which Charles Arthur was prominently quoted, but much remained unexplored –most conspicuously the findings of the study–but also what Kolbe has had to endure since the study was published.

It was her volunteer service in 1995 with Lafanmi Selavi, an orphanage for street children and child domestic servants in Port-au-Prince which Arthur claimed makes Kolbe too”biased” to conduct research. Aristide founded the orphanage when he was a parish priest ten years prior. Kolbe met Aristide and says she was “impressed with commitment to promoting the idea that children are people who need to be loved, respected and valued.” Kolbe volunteered in several orphanages during postings in Haiti, Croatia and Israel.

Kolbe formerly wrote for the Pacific News Service writing under the name Lyn Duff (her mother’s maiden name), publishing a smattering of articles during the next ten years about the experiences of marginalized Haitians including rape survivors, homeless children, factory workers, child laborers, and human rights victims. It was her experiences in Haiti and other developing countries that Kolbe says motivated her to return to university to peruse an academic career. Kolbe’s co-author in the study is Royce Hutson, a former doctoral fellow at the Madison, Wisconsin-based Institute for Research on Poverty and a current associate professor of social work at Wayne State University.

Kolbe says, “I felt that in academia I could have a greater impact on developing ideas and policies which would help promote justice and healing for human rights victims,” explaining that advocating for social justice is an essential tenet of the National Association of Social Worker’s code of ethics. When starting her studies in late 2004 Kolbe decided to go by her father’s surname rather than the hyphenated name she had been using previously. That decision, she says, was to avoid persecution for her sexual orientation, as she had previously been the subject of media reports about discriminatory treatment of gay youth.

In response to Arthur’s allegations of “bias”, Kolbe replies, “I am in no way a Lavalas propagandist as Arthur implies. Just because I wrote about Haiti and do not believe Aristide was a dictator, that does not make me Fanmi Lavalas. That is ridiculous,” she said. “This survey was conducted fairly and accurately. The researchers conducted themselves without bias and interviewed and gathered information from 1260 randomly selected homes. To insinuate that the report is misleading is to allege a grand conspiracy involving dozens of people including our university’s ethics committee which had full knowledge of my past history in Haiti and had no problem with it when they approved our research protocols.”

A Haitian resident of London, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the death threats, explains that on Sept. 2 Charles Arthur told her and several other people that “We need to find this woman?s phone number so people can contact her and complain to her directly.” The following day a flyer emblazed with Kolbe’s photo was released titled “Who is Athena Kolbe?” Respond to Fanmi Lavalas Propaganda!!!!” Another witness, wishing to go unnamed due to the fear of being targeted, explains that Arthur was responsible for distributing the fliers. The flyer’s text is identical to portions of Arthur’s letter to the Lancet, which he posted online. It ends by encouraging people to “ask her why she is hiding her affiliation with Fanmi Lavalas” and gives Kolbe’s phone numbers, email address, home address, and the address and phone number of her family members.

The calls began the next day, Kolbe explains, as she received over a dozen. One caller with a “clearly Haitian accent” called her a “Lavalas chimere” saying, “Do you know what we do to Lavalas chimere? You deserve to die painfully. We know where you are. We know who you are.” In a later call she was threatened with rape, evisceration and death, said a police official. The harassment is being investigated by the FBI who have given the Wayne State University researchers “several options” to find the callers, says Hutson.

On September 6, Kolbe received a dead rat in the mail. Postal investigators are investigating the source of the package, which was postmarked in Brooklyn, New York. Just six days after Kolbe received the dead rat in her mail a frequent poster on the Internet forum, Michel Nau, a senior analyst at Georgetown University, commenting on the Lancet survey claimed it smelled “like a dead rat.”

“Intimidation and violence against journalists and human rights investigators critical of the coup government is nothing new, as Kolbe’s death threats are the most recent.” explains Randall White editor of, which frequently covered assaults on the poor by security forces of the interim government. Radio WKAT reporter Abdias Jean was executed on January 12 2005, according to witnesses after photographing the summary execution of three young men by Interim government police. Later that year, in September, SWAT members of the Police Nationale d’Haiti (PNH) arrested American journalist Kevin Pina and a Haitian photojournalist working for AP Jean Ristil. Ristil was arrested again and subjected to torture later in 2005 on orders from Haiti’s Central Headquarters of the Judicial Police.

The persecution of those who expose human rights abuses is to be expected, says Hutson who explains that the research team expected ?our methodology and findings to be subjected to intense scrutiny because we examined patterns of violations by political actors who might not have wanted those violations to be exposed.? But, he says, “the charges of bias are baseless. We were aware Athena had written under another name and found no conflict. Our concern is the way UN soldiers are interacting with Haitians.” Lancet Publisher, Richard Horton, explains the study had excellent credential and peer reviews, stating in the UK?s Guardian newspaper, “It was very thoroughly reviewed by four external advisers,” he said.

Several other human rights studies, such as those by the Miami University of Law, the New York University School of Law, the National Lawyers Guild, and Amnesty International, found the interim government and paramilitary forces guilty of extra-judicial violence, reports that received little coverage in the press (Sprague, 2006). One of the few local Haitian human rights groups to focus on violence within Port-au-Prince’s slum communities, the Association of University Graduates Motivated For A Haiti With Rights (AUMOHD), has reported frequently on violence against Lavalas communities.

Kolbe concludes, “Our type of study can not be used to prove that no violations happened by a particular group; it can only be used to show broader patterns of abuse against the populace. Human rights workers reported patterns of violations by political actors against people throughout Port-au-Prince during 2004 and 2005 and that?s exactly what we found.”

The Lancet study found that 21 percent of the killings were attributed to members of the interim government’s Haitian National Police (HNP), 13 percent to the demobilized army and 13 percent to anti-Lavalas gangs such as Lame Timachet. Most of the rest of the violations were attributed to criminal elements. The study also found a high amount of sexual violence committed since Aristide’s ouster, much of it committed by anti-Lavalas political actors. Although Kolbe points out that the study found a number of sexual threats and threats of physical violence were issued by UN troops and Lavalas supporters.

Charles Arthur’s organization the Haiti Support Group acknowledges amongst its associates a number of organizations which failed to report on the interim government’s wave of violence upon Haitian slum dwellers, such as the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH) which received funding from the Canadian quasi-governmental agency “Rights and Democracy”, a partner with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Also affiliated with the Haiti Support Group, the Batay Ouvriye (BO) who called for Aristide to “leave the country” is the recent recipient of $450000 USD in NED and State Department programs through the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS). Camille Chalmers, head of the Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development (PAPDA) another group affiliated with the Haiti Support Group, lobbied for the resignation of Aristide and coauthored a letter labeling Aristide a “dictator” with another PAPDA official, Yves Andres Wainwright who later become environment Minister under the Latortue government. Chalmers then established close ties with the Canadian “Democracy Promotion” agency Alternatives, who works with the NED and receives 50% of its budget from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Christian Aid a financer of the Haiti Support Group receives significant funding from the British government as well as CIDA.

The controversial human rights activist Pierre Esperance and his organization National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR) refused to go into poor neighborhoods after the coup, which they explained to a Quixote Center delegation in March 2004. Esparance at the time of Aristide’s ouster was a treasurer of POHDH, while his other organization NCHR received $100000 USD from CIDA, renewable every six months.

While the Lancet study was run on a small budget the aforementioned groups heavily funded and closely connected with Canadian, European, and U.S. government and quasi-government agencies have yet to subject their claims on human rights abuses in Haiti to similar peer-review.

Joe Emesberger is a writer living in Canada with an interest in Haiti.

Jeb Sprague is a graduate student and freelance journalist. Visit his blog at