Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier leaves the civil court house with his wife in Port-au-Prince on January 18, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(Port-au-Prince) - The government of Haiti should be encouraged and supported in its decision to move forward with the prosecution of the former dictator Jean‑Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier for grave violations of human rights, Human Rights Watch said today at the end of a mission to the country.

Duvalier returned to Haiti on January 16, 2011, after nearly 25 years in exile. He was quickly charged with embezzlement and human rights crimes allegedly committed during his 15-year tenure.

"Haitians who suffered under Duvalier's rule deserve justice, and all Haitians deserve to know what happened during that dark period," said Reed Brody, counsel with Human Rights Watch. "A fair trial for Jean‑Claude Duvalier could help restore Haitians' faith in a justice system that has almost always shielded the perpetrators of the worst atrocities."

Human Rights Watch said that the Haitian government appeared determined to move forward with the prosecution, but would face many obstacles, including the fragility of its justice system. The offer to assist Haiti with the case from the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, was extremely helpful, and other international actors should follow her lead, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has provided Haitian authorities with all its reports on the Duvalier period.

During his tenure, from 1971 to 1986, Duvalier commanded a network of security forces that committed serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, torture, "disappearances," rape, and summary executions. Thousands of Haitians were victims of extrajudicial killings or otherwise died from torture or inhuman detention conditions. Many more were forced to flee the country, building the modern Haitian diaspora. The human rights violations during Duvalier's rule, if shown to be part of a widespread or systematic attack against a sector of the population, would constitute crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Watch said that the statute of limitations was not an obstacle to the case against Duvalier. It noted that statutes of limitation did not apply to prosecution for crimes against humanity, and that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a body by whose judgments Haiti is legally bound, has held repeatedly that in light of states' obligations to investigate and prosecute serious violations under the American Convention on Human Rights, statutes of limitations are inadmissible in connection with gross human rights violations proscribed by international law.

"Countries from Argentina to Uruguay and Bangladesh to Cambodia are prosecuting human rights crimes from decades ago," Brody said. "There is no reason why Haiti cannot do the same."