The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Haiti recently joined a chorus of politicians expressing outrage over the unlawful imprisonment of former prime minister Yvon Neptune, who, along with many other politicians and activists belonging to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Famni Lavalas party, has been kept in the notoriously foul National Penitentiary for over a year without trial. Last Tuesday Juan Gabriel Valdes, U.N. special envoy to Haiti, suddenly insisted on Neptune’s immediate release, and soon after Haiti’s new justice minister reportedly denounced the U.S.-backed interim government’s practice of imprisoning people without any hope of trial.
Why the sudden outrage?
Insiders predict that the interim government is preparing to stage a massive release of imprisoned Lavalas politicians—but only the soft ones. Ira Kurzban, former lawyer for the Aristide government of Haiti, says the release has been calculated to make it easier for a faction of Lavalas that appears to be in the U.S.’s good graces to run a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections.
“Neptune cooperated with them from the beginning—they’ll let him go, and probably a hundred or so others,” Kurzban tells the Voice. Last June Neptune was arrested on charges that he’d ordered the killings of several anti- Lavalas rebels after a well-publicized clash between pro- and anti-government armed groups in February 2004. Last week U.S. ambassador James Foley told reporters that no one has come forward with “the least evidence, the least clue, the least testimony” that would implicate the former Prime Minister.
“They never have any evidence,” says lawyer Mario Joseph, who represents Neptune through a non-profit organization. “You have to understand that this is a dictatorship. They do what they want. I just try to do my job as best as I can, and I do a good job, but I cannot say what they will do.”
Neptune may stand a good chance of being released soon, but others aren’t likely to see the light of day until after the election. The interim government doesn’t want populist leaders like Gerard Jean-Juste and Annette August to rile up the Lavalas faithful, says Kurzban.
Last year the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission estimated that there are about 700 political prisoners in Haitian jails. Now, activists say, there are hundreds more, with Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest, being the most recent high-profile addition since his arrest by Haitian police last month.
Even more disturbing story is the story of Haitian born, 20-year Brooklyn resident Annette Auguste, a grandmotherly community activist and folk singer affectionately known as “So Anne”—which means “Sister Anne” in Creole. She was arrested in her home in May 2004 by U.S. Marines who, her lawyer says, blasted through her door with grenades, shot the barking family dogs, and put everyone, including four children, in handcuffs before marching them off to the police station in the middle of the night.
Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the U.S. Marines in Haiti, last year told Newsday that only one dog was shot, not two, and that although Auguste was originally arrested for allegedly helping a group of Haitian Muslims organize attacks on the United States, the charges were dropped. Now she is being held by the Haitian government on charges of paying people to attack anti-Aristide demonstrators. At a hearing last Thursday, lawyer Joseph says his client was questioned by a judge about the allegations, and that it seemed to go well.
“But people like her and Jean-Juste—they have good mouths when it comes to speaking to the people. So I think [the interim government] will hold them until after the elections.”