U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell should press the interim Haitian government to pursue justice for abusive rebel leaders as well as members of the deposed government, Human Rights Watch said today. Secretary Powell's one-day mission to Haiti today is the first such visit by a U.S. secretary of state since Madeleine Albright went to Haiti in 1998.
Vowing to end impunity, Haitian justice officials have promised to prosecute abusive former members of the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but have showed little interest in pursuing abusive leaders of the rebel forces. Last week, Justice Minister Bernard Gousse raised the possibility of pardoning Jean Tatoune (whose real name is Jean Pierre Baptiste), a rebel leader who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2000 for his role in a 1994 massacre of Aristide supporters.
"The contrast between the Haitian government's eagerness to prosecute former Aristide officials and its indifference to the abusive record of certain rebel leaders could not be more stark," said Joanne Mariner, deputy director of Americas Division for Human Rights Watch. "Secretary Powell should remind Haitian officials that, if justice is not evenhanded, it's little more than politics."
Secretary Powell has explicitly condemned the violent record of some rebel commanders. In mid-February, in comments to reporters, Secretary Powell described these men as "murderers and thugs." His statements underscored the fact that rebel leaders such as Jean Tatoune and Louis Jodel Chamblain have been convicted of serious human rights crimes.
Yet Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has, in contrast, publicly lauded the rebel forces. On March 20, during a visit to the rebel stronghold of Gonaives, Latortue referred implicitly to Secretary Powell's comments, stating that in the United States "they thought the people in Gonaives were thugs and bandits."
Latortue repudiated this view, saying that in his opinion "they are freedom fighters."
The most notorious of the insurgent leaders is Louis Jodel Chamblain, the apparent second in command to rebel commander Guy Philippe. Chamblain, one of the founders of the violent paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress (FRAPH), was convicted in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1993 murder of Antoine Izméry, a well-known pro-democracy activist, and for involvement in the April 1994 Raboteau massacre in which some 20 people are believed to have been killed.
Another member of the insurgent forces with a history of violent abuses is Jean Pierre Baptiste, better known as Jean Tatoune. Tatoune, a local FRAPH leader during the 1991-1994 military government, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the Raboteau massacre. He escaped from prison in Gonaives in August 2002, as part of a mass prison break, and later joined the armed insurgency.
The Haitian government has announced that the fight against impunity will be one of its highest priorities. Haitian justice officials have promised to prosecute a number of former government officials, including Aristide himself, for human rights crimes and corruption.
Two weeks ago, while on a 10-day visit to Haiti, Human Rights Watch representatives met with Bernard Gousse, Haiti's new minister of justice. Gousse told Human Rights Watch that the government might consider giving Jean Tatoune a reduction in sentence if Tatoune turned himself in to the justice authorities. The reduction could be merited, Gousse claimed, because "he's fought against two dictatorships."
Human Rights Watch has called on U.S. forces in Haiti to arrest human rights criminals such as Tatoune and Chamblain and bring them to justice.
"To allow them to move about freely, under the eyes of U.S. troops, is likely to further destabilize the country and result in continued violence," said Mariner.