Haiti’s interim government, led by a prime minister hand-picked and hand-fed by the Bush administration, has seen fit to jail a potential presidential candidate. Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest, may be the only figure one large faction of the Fanmi Lavalas party could accept as a candidate in elections planned for this October and November. Lavalas is the party of exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“We are waiting for Aristide to return. If he approves it, we could support [Jean-Juste],” Rene Momplaisir recently told the Voice, through a translator, in a stifling-hot schoolhouse in Cite Soleil. Cite Soleil is a huge Port-au-Prince slum, whose approximately 250,000 residents overwhelming identify with Lavalas. Like the three other men who spoke with the Voice in what amounted to a sort of roundtable, Momplaisir identified himself as a member of the “Cite Soleil Lavalas cell.”
Jean-Juste was taken away two weeks ago on charges that international aid groups are calling laughable. Best known for his vocal denouncement of state-sponsored violence and his decades of work feeding poor children from a church in the working-class Delmas section of Port-au-Prince, Jean-Juste is accused of murdering cultural writer Jacques Roche.
Roche, who worked for the Haitian newspaper Le Matin, was kidnapped for ransom on July 10. Five days later his body was found near Cite Soleil, still wearing handcuffs and showing signs of torture. He had apparently been shot to death.
Amnesty International has gotten involved, saying Jean-Juste was in Miami at the time Roche was abducted. He was there to organize a series of protests in front of the Brazilian consulate for that country’s role in a deadly U.N. Cite Soleil incursion on July 6. Last Thursday, Amnesty
issued a report calling the priest a “prisoner of conscience detained solely because he has peacefully exercised his right to freedom of expression,” awaiting trial on “apparently trumped-up charges.”
Reports in the Haitian media, which is largely controlled by anti-Aristide forces, suggested that Lavalas was behind Roche’s death. At his funeral on July 21, Jean-Juste was attacked by an angry crowd of mourners and ultimately arrested.
Doug Spalding, of the San Francisco-based Haiti Action Committee, saw Jean-Juste at the local precinct where he and his lawyers were interrogated, and at the “medieval” National Penitentiary where Juste has been housed ever since. “He’s being held with one cellmate in a windowless cell four feet wide, 12 feet long. It’s hot, dark, grimy. A urine and feces smell permeates. His neck was swollen and bruised, and when we asked how he was holding up he said, ‘Well, I’m surviving.’ He asked for reading material.”
Although Haitian police have beaten Jean-Juste before, Spalding says guards seem to have shown restraint this time. He says Jean-Juste told him the bruises were from being attacked by the mourners.
In October, the 59-year-old priest was beaten and snatched out of a rectory window by masked police while serving free meals to parishioners. No formal charges were filed, but Prime Minister Gerard Latortue told reporters Jean-Juste was “associated with people suspected of organizing against the government.” He was imprisoned for about seven weeks before international pressure forced his case before a judge; it was dismissed.
Jean-Juste is the most prominent Lavalas leader to be jailed lately, but since the Latortue government assumed control in February 2004, hundreds of activists and politicians have been locked up on dubious charges. Among them are former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, activist folk singer Anne Auguste, and former minister of the interior Jocelerme Privert-all of whom have been imprisoned without trial for months.