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

(New York) – The inability of Haiti’s courts to bring to trial former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier deprived his countless Haitian victims of the justice they sought, Human Rights Watch said today. Duvalier’s death was reported on October 4, 2014.

“It's a shame that the Haitian justice system could not bring Baby Doc Duvalier to trial before he died,” said Reed Brody, special counsel at Human Rights Watch, who worked with Duvalier’s victims. “Duvalier’s death robs Haiti of what could have been the most important human rights trial in its history.”

Duvalier inherited power from his father, the dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986. During the son’s rule, Haiti was marked by systematic human rights violations. Hundreds of political prisoners held in a network of prisons known as the “triangle of death” died from their extraordinarily cruel treatment. Others were victims of extrajudicial killings. Duvalier’s government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations. Journalists were beaten, and in some cases tortured, jailed, or forced into exile.

When “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return to Haiti on January 16, 2011, following a 25-year exile in France, the authorities reopened a criminal case against him. In January 2012, an investigating judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on the human rights crimes of which he was accused. His victims appealed. In February 2013, an appeals court ordered Duvalier to testify, as did many of his government’s victims, but only in February 2014 did the court re-instate the charges, saying that international law barred the use of statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. One of the appeals court judges took over the investigation and was interviewing victims and witnesses when Duvalier died.

“Duvalier’s court appearance in 2013 to be questioned about his alleged crimes was a critical moment in a country where the rich and powerful have always been above the law,” said Brody. “A fair trial for Duvalier could have ended the impunity that has characterized Haiti’s past and will likely plague its future.”

A Human Rights Watch report, “Haiti's Rendezvous With History: The Case of Jean-Claude Duvalier,” examined the legal and practical questions surrounding the case and concluded that Haiti had an obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute the grave violations of human rights under Duvalier’s rule. The report, published in April 2011, also addressed Haiti’s capacity to carry out the trial, the question of the statute of limitations, and Duvalier’s personal involvement in alleged criminal acts.

“A Haitian proverb says ‘He who gives the blow forgets; he who carries the scar remembers,’” Brody said. “Duvalier may have forgotten the blows he gave to the Haitian people, but his victims remember.”