BY NITIKA KHAITAN:
Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier is by no means a household name today. But as a former Haitian leader accused of committing crimes against humanity, he perhaps deserves less obscurity. This past week, on 7th February, he missed a court appearance for the second consecutive time, re-emerging in the world spotlight.
‘Baby Doc’ became President at the age of 19, following his father, Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier who had ruled Haiti since 1957. He also followed his father in his use of tonton macoutes, paramilitary ‘Volunteers for National Security,’ to violently enforce his rule – suppressing human rights and pro-democracy movements. Deposed in 1986, Duvalier escaped to France for 25 years.
The former dictator made a surprise return to Haiti in 2011, purportedly to take advantage of a then-existing political vacuum and regain power. However, he was greeted with state prosecution charges regarding embezzlement of public funds during his reign, which he denied. Despite these charges, he decided to remain in Haiti and in February that year, Swiss authorities froze millions of dollars that allegedly belonged to him, saying they would try and use the funds to provide relief for earthquake victims in Haiti.
Apart from embezzlement, charges against ‘Baby Doc’ also include alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances of thousands of Haitians during his 15-year reign. However, a Haitian court ruled in January this year that he can only be tried for embezzlement as the rest of the charges have expired under a statue of limitations (i.e., they have passed the maximum time after the event during which they can be initiated). Moreover, his lawyers argue that the crimes against humanity of which he is accused were not crimes when he is alleged to have committed them and hence, he cannot be prosecuted for them. During these proceedings, Duvalier was technically placed under house arrest but has still been able to move about freely and has even been issued a diplomatic passport.
NGO’s such as the Open Society Justice Initiative have fiercely opposed this ruling, issuing statements and submitting joint letters to the country’s judicial authorities. Their case is that under international law, no statue of limitations in applicable to such crimes and since Haiti has adopted these standards, it is constitutionally bound to follow them.
Duvalier’s lawyers stated that the court hearing he missed was unfortunately re-scheduled; February 7th is the anniversary of his exile from Haiti and his appearance at the courthouse could have led to massive public protests in surrounding areas that could have jeopardized his security. His judge accepted this reasoning and rescheduled his trial date for February 21st, without punishing Duvalier for not appearing in court. Whether the international community will pay close attention to his attendance then is debatable. What is certain is that it should.
Nitika Khaitan ’16 is in Silliman College. As a Globalist Notebook blogger, she writes about issues regarding human and political rights in Central and South America. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.