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Ronald Dauphin, 42, wears a rosary around his neck. A second cross dangles from his wrist.
Suffering from prostate cancer and asthma and in need of a hernia operation, Dauphin tells reporters who interview him in a shady courtyard at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince that it is only his relationship to God that has kept him sane during his 53 months of confinement.
Dauphin, who has never been formally accused of a crime, says he is locked up “for political reasons.”
This, despite the election of President René Préval, almost halfway through his five-year mandate.
An activist in the Lavalas movement, the political party of exiled President Jean Bertrand Aristide and a former security guard for the president, Dauphin was arrested March 1 2004, the day after U.S. officials transported Aristide to the Central African Republic. (While the State Department says Aristide asked to leave, Aristide describes his ouster as a coup d’état by the U.S. with the complicity of France and Canada. See accounts in Randall Robinson’s “An Unbroken Agony” and Peter Hallward’s “Damming the Flood.”)
Without legitimate status to do so, paramilitaries, part of a band of some 200 armed men led by U.S.-trained ex-army officer Guy Philippe, arrested Dauphin. The paramilitary group had burned and looted a number of Haitian towns and made statements to the effect that they planned to take over the capital (with some 3 million inhabitants) in the weeks before Aristide’s ouster by the international community.
“I’ve never been judged,” Dauphin said.
Lavalas leadership boycotted the 2006 elections for the successor to the government installed by the U.S., Canada and France, arguing that elections could not be democratic while Aristide (not eligible to run for a third term even if he was in the country) was in exile and political prisoners were in jail.
Many in the grassroots Lavalas movement, however, supported participation in Préval’s election so that “the Haitian people could take a break from suffering,” according to grassroots Lavalas leader Jean-Marie Samedi.
But the new government has done nothing for Dauphin and others who languish in sweltering overcrowded jails, Samedi said.
“Whatever someone has done, a person should be judged,” he said. Incarceration without seeing a judge “should happen only under a dictatorship. That should not happen in a democracy.”
After Préval took office, the cases of some high-profile political prisoners slowly began to be addressed. It was not until June 2008 that all charges were dropped against Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste, jailed for a murder that took place in Port-au-Prince while he was in Miami. (He had been provisionally released from prison to seek medical help for treatment for leukemia.)
Former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert, former Deputy Amanus Mayette and grassroots Lavalas leader René Civil have all been freed. The courts, however, have deemed their liberty “provisional.” Charges hang over their heads; each could be re-incarcerated at any moment. (In June, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Haiti violated 11 provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights in the case of Neptune and ordered all charges dropped and damages paid. The government is yet to follow the court’s orders.)
Dauphin was arrested in the same case in which Neptune, Privert and Mayette were later arrested, often called the La Scierie massacre. U.N. human rights officials are among those asserting that there never was a massacre in La Scierie.
“They never charged Dauphin,” said his lawyer, Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), pointing out that the judiciary has not improved with Préval in office. The same judges and prosecutors involved in persecution of Lavalas activists under the Latortue regime remain in place, he said.
“The fact is that many judicial officials involved in political persecution under the interim government, including the judge in St. Marc who conducted an illegal investigation then filed baseless and illegal charges against Yvon Neptune, Ronald Dauphin and others, are still in their positions, still able to persecute their political opponents. That may explain why Ronald Dauphin has not, over four years after his arrest, had his day in court,” said Brian Concannon, director of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Dauphin is confined to a cell of 20 prisoners built for six in the 3,800-person prison meant to hold 1,200.
While he said bad prison food that had caused diseases in the prison such as beriberi had improved – campaigns were launched by the Collective of Families of Political Prisoners, the Red Cross and human rights organizations – Dauphin won’t eat jail food. “Because of my status as a political prisoner and my affiliation with Lavalas, I don’t eat the food here,” he said. He fears he could be poisoned.
Dauphin’s wife works and is able to order food from a nearby restaurant that cooks for prisoners who can pay for the food.
Dauphin doesn’t get to see his wife very often these days. Prisoners are allowed visits every two weeks. That worked when Dauphin’s visiting day was Sunday. Now that the day has been switched to Monday, he rarely gets visits since his wife can’t afford to take off work on Mondays to see her husband.
Minimally, Dauphin says he should be offered medical release to have his cancer and hernia treated by specialists. There is a prison dispensary “but conditions in the dispensary are not good,” he said. “Every month since I’ve been here, someone has died in the dispensary.”
As bad as he feels for himself, Dauphin says his wife’s situation is worse. “I can’t tell you how much she feels alone,” he said. “God is with her. It’s like she is in jail. One day this will end. I will keep praying. There is hope that one day I will be free.”
JUDITH SCHERR can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org