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7123: This Week in Haiti 18:49 2/21/2001 (fwd)

"This Week in Haiti" is the English section of HAITI PROGRES
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                           HAITI PROGRES
              "Le journal qui offre une alternative"

                      * THIS WEEK IN HAITI *

                      February 21 - 27, 2001
                          Vol. 18, No. 49


Dr. Alix Charles had just finished sewing up the leg into which
he had inserted a metal rod to replace the thigh bone of his
patient. It had been shattered by one of three bullets fired into
the man two weeks earlier.

Suddenly there was a commotion among the two anaesthesiologists.
"What's the matter?" Charles asked. "His heart has stopped," one
of them responded with panic.

For over half an hour, the doctors worked feverishly to revive
the patient. Two or three times they restarted the heart, only to
have it flatline moments later. Finally, they declared the
patient lost, apparently the victim of a pulmonary embolism,
which means a blood clot fatally lodged in the lungs. Little did
any of them suspect how this unsuccessful operation on June 28,
2000 would turn their lives upside down.

An emergency operation

The embolism was not exactly a surprise. For 13 days, the
patient, Jean Wilner Lalanne, had lain on a squeaky bed in
Haiti's decrepit General Hospital without any medical attention,
"without dressings, without immobilization, with serum, without
anything," Dr. Charles explained in an exclusive interview with
Haïti Progrès.

At 7 a.m. on the day of the operation, Dr. Charles had been
contacted by a lawyer, Ephesien Joassaint, to look at Lalanne.
Charles was shocked when told of Lalanne's condition and feared
the risk of clotting, and hence of an embolism in the lungs,
brain, or heart. He ordered an emergency operation. Charles
assembled three other doctors - anaesthesiologists Marie Yves-
Rose Chrysostome and Gina Georges and an assistant surgeon, Dr.
Délano Benjamin - and they carried out the operation at the St.
François de Sales hospital, less than a mile from the General
Hospital, that afternoon.

Mr. Joassaint had told Dr. Charles that Lalanne had been shot by
the police during a drug bust. That was what explained the two
police officers who were watching over his client. It wasn't
until two days later that Charles would learn the truth: Haitian
authorities suspected Lalanne of being the liaison between the
person who ordered the murder of radio journalist Jean Dominique
last Apr. 3, and the man who pulled the trigger.

"It was like being stabbed"

Dr. Charles, 44, is an unassuming orthopedist with a medical
clinic in Pétionville. He has five sons, the oldest of which
attends Brooklyn College in New York, and his wife is also a
doctor. Trained in Haiti and Germany, he has practiced medicine
for 20 years.

He felt bad about his patient dying, as any doctor does. Lalanne
had received only local anaesthesia, which is much safer than
general anaesthesia, where the patient is rendered unconscious.
He had been lucid before the operation and had asked about the
operation's cost. Dr. Charles told him "Let's get the operation
done and talk about the costs later." In fact, Joassaint had told
Charles that he would pay for the operation.

Two days after the operation, on the morning of Friday, Jun. 30,
Dr. Charles took his car to be repaired. "Man, doctors in Haiti
are vicious," the mechanic told him. "What did they do?" Charles
asked. "A guy who killed Jean Dominique, a doctor killed him so
he wouldn't talk," the mechanic said.

"That's how I learned about the matter," Dr. Charles explained.
"From my mechanic. It was like being stabbed." When Charles told
the mechanic that he had been the doctor, the mechanic thought he
was joking. He had to explain everything that had happened to
make the man understand.

But the genie was already out of the bottle. Judgement had
already been passed. Demonstrations were held the following week,
calling for the doctors' heads. "A girl at the hospital called
me," Charles explained. "She told me that there was a group of
guys with dread locks who said that the doctor killed the guy,
they were looking for the doctor to kill him too. I panicked. I
called everybody I knew in the country."

The disappearing body

That weekend, examining magistrate Jean Sénat Fleury contacted
Charles, and they met on Monday morning. Over the course of that
meeting and several others, Fleury, along with a police chief who
is also a doctor, questioned Charles about the operation and
surrounding circumstances.

On Monday, Haiti's sole state pathologist performed an autopsy on
Lalanne's body, and Fleury gave Charles a copy of the report. It
made no diagnosis of the cause of death but noted all the
symptoms, which were consistent with the medical team's suspicion
of an embolism: pulmonary congestion, cyanosis, and other signs.

Meanwhile, Charles' wife was in Queens, New York, giving birth to
their fifth son. Charles asked Fleury if he could go to the
States to see his newborn. The judge told him he couldn't leave
until the judicial inquiry was completed. Finally, after about
four weeks, Fleury told Charles that everything checked out and
that he was free to go.

At the end of July, Charles travelled to New York to see his wife
and son, returning with them to Haiti in August. He went back to
work, believing that life had returned to normal.

He could not have been more wrong. At the end of September, Dr.
Charles received a letter from another examining magistrate,
Claudy Gassant, summoning him to the courthouse on Oct. 1 for
more questioning. "It wasn't easy," Charles recalls. "He
questioned me as if I was a criminal. He was very hard on me."

Charles says that Gassant was sarcastic and skeptical,
threatening him with searches and jail. At one point, Charles'
cell-phone rang. "If that thing goes off again in my presence,
I'm going to throw you in jail," Gassant told Charles, according
to Charles. "That gives you an idea of the tone of the
interrogation," Charles said.

Gassant spent the whole day questioning Charles and checking his
testimony against that of other witnesses. Charles admits that
Gassant seemed very thorough. "Judge Gassant verified everything
I said," Charles said. "I can compliment him in that sense. He
really did his job. He double-checked each person I mentioned."

The most important element of Gassant's inquiry, however, was to
be a new independent autopsy of the body by a foreign examiner.
"When he told me that, I was so happy," Charles said. "The more
they would make tests on the body, the better it would be for me
because it would show the truth. Then a few days later I heard
that the body had been lost." Under circumstances which are still
unclear, the body disappeared from the morgue, where the Justice
Department had it in custody. "No supplementary explanation has
been made public on this fact," Charles wrote in a Feb. 16
written statement distributed to 16 human rights and medical
groups as well as the press. "Complete opacity has been
maintained about this part of the investigation."

Medical complications

Meanwhile, Dr. Charles had trouble developing on other fronts.
His heart was having heart problems. His cardiologist told him he
needed treatment in the U.S.. On Oct. 2, Nov. 3, and again on
Nov. 17, he travelled to New York, where he saw a doctor at Beth
Israel Hospital. He was admitted to the hospital from Dec. 19 -
21 due to his dangerous condition and underwent a battery of
tests. He suffers from ischemia, a blood circulation problem.
Stress is in large measure responsible for his condition, Charles
believes. He is now faced with mounting medical bills of
thousands of dollars and the possible need this summer to have an
angioplasty operation, which he cannot afford and which might
kill him.

Then on Dec. 13, Charles' wife called him in New York from Haiti.
She was hysterical because he had received "a warrant on the
charge of homicide." His lawyer went to the judge on Dec. 14 and
explained that Charles had been in New York since Nov. 17
following medical treatment and still had further tests to
undergo. The judge said he would see him as soon as he got back.
Meanwhile, warrants were also issued for the other three doctors.
Dr. Charles is scheduled now to return to Haiti in early March.

The pressure and uncertainty of the affair are wreaking havoc on
his family, Charles says. In New York, his 78-year-old mother,
who is not in good health, is pleading with him not to return, as
are his children and wife. He also has grave fears for his safety
from various quarters ranging from prejudiced "hotheads" who
think him guilty of murder to the criminals behind Jean
Dominique's murder. Similar anxiety is felt among the other
doctors. Drs. Chrysostome and Georges wrote an open letter on
Dec. 11 to the Haitian Medical Association (AMH) calling for "the
institution's support" in the matter. They note they also
received "warrants on the charge of homicide... which is very
strong and out of the question and makes us realize that this
matter deserves particular attention and a more rigorous

Dr. Benjamin was summoned to appear in court on Feb. 20, not as
an accused, but as a witness. The way he is treated and the way
the case develops will be telling.  "I am going to Haiti, but I
don't know what will happen," Charles said. "I will be following
developments very closely."

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