World News

Haiti: Calls mount to free Lavalas activist

By Wadner Pierre and Jeb Sprague | Last updated: Sep 4, 2009 - 9:07:30 AM

What's your opinion on this article?

Graphic: MGN Online/
PORT-AU-PRINCE (IPS/GIN) - Government authorities in Haiti are facing a backlash of criticism over claims that political dissidents are locked up in jail.

On Aug. 7, Amnesty International called for the release of Ronald Dauphin, a Haitian political prisoner. Mr. Dauphin is an activist with the Fanmi Lavalas movement of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was seized by armed paramilitaries on March 1, 2004—the day after the Aristide government was ousted in a coup d'état.

According to Amnesty, “the delay in bringing Ronald Dauphin to trial is unjustifiable and is politically motivated.” The organization “opposes Ronald Dauphin's continued detention without trial, which is in violation of his rights, and urges the Haitian authorities to release him pending trial.”

Amnesty noted that Mr. Dauphin's health has deteriorated severely in Haiti's National Penitentiary, which is notorious for the appalling conditions to which it subjects inmates. One of Mr. Dauphin's co-defendants, Wantales Lormejuste, died in prison from untreated tuberculosis in April 2007.

In May 2009, doctors examined Mr. Dauphin and called on the authorities to immediately transfer him to a hospital. But today, nearly five and half years since his original arrest, he has not seen his day in court and remains locked up.

Demonstrations in downtown Port-au-Prince, with hundreds of supporters, occur here on a weekly basis, calling for the release of political prisoners. They are organized by local grassroots groups.

At one protest, Rospide Pétion a former political prisoner and Lavalas supporter, told IPS, “It is unjust to keep Dauphin in prison while criminals are on the street working without prosecution. We ask for justice for Ronald and all the unknown political prisoners from the slums.”

Last year, the Inter American Court of Human Rights ordered the Haitian government to immediately improve prison conditions. That ruling also ordered the Haitian government to pay $95,000 in damages to Yvon Neptune, one of Ronald Dauphins co-defendants, for numerous violations of his legal rights.

The Haitian government has disregarded the ruling to date. Mr. Neptune received a “provisional release” in 2006 after spending two years in prison but the case against him has yet to be dismissed, despite an appeals court order in his favor.

Ronald Dauphin is the last of 16 Fanmi Lavalas members and supporters imprisoned based on allegations made by the organization Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), as well as some relatives of the victims, that a massacre was perpetrated between Feb. 9 and Feb. 11, 2004 in St. Marc, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.

RNDDH received funding from the Canadian government for the prosecution of the supposed perpetrators of the massacre. However, UN investigators—despite UN hostility to Fanmi Lavalas and support for the coup-installed government that ruled Haiti until 2006—have not backed the accusations made by RNDDH.

In 2005, the UN Human Rights Commission's independent expert on human rights in Haiti, Louis Joinet, concluded that what happened at St. Marc was that armed groups—supporters and opponents of the Aristide government—clashed and that there were casualties on both sides.

In 2006, the head of the Human Rights department of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, rebuked RNDDH for never substantiating its allegations by even providing a list of the names of victims.

Amnesty International's appeal on behalf of Ronald Dauphin also called for an impartial and thorough investigation into the events that took place in St. Marc.

In July, the director of RNDDH, Pierre Esperance, told IPS, “In our system, the criminal becomes a victim because the system doesn't work.”

Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti agreed that the shortcomings of Haiti's legal and prison system punish the innocent and guilty alike.

However, Mr. Concannon noted that the coup-installed government of 2004-2006 “arrested hundreds of political opponents, some at the insistence of RNDDH. Over five years after the arrests began, not a single political prisoner has been convicted of any crime.”

Working class Haitian activist groups like Veye-yo, which is based in Miami, have been calling on Haitian envoy Bill Clinton to work on behalf of Mr. Dauphin as he recently did on behalf of U.S. journalists imprisoned in North Korea.

The Haitian government denies that it holds political prisoners. Haiti's ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, denied that he has even heard of Mr. Dauphin.

Others argue this is part of a pattern, part of a concerted campaign to silence Haiti's poor that continues today with the blocking by the government's Conseil électoral provisoire of Fanmi Lavalas from taking part in recent elections.