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#5051: Haiti spellbound by trial of police... (fwd)
Published Sunday, September 10, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Haiti spellbound by trial of police accused of executing 11
BY YVES COLON
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- For three weeks, the trial of six police officers
accused of executing 11 men last year has captivated Haitians who are
anxiously awaiting the jury's verdict, hoping to see justice applied as
equally to the powerful as it is to the weak. The court's decision is
expected Monday. In a country where authority figures over the
decades have earned infamous reputations for corruption, brutality and
impunity, the outcome of the trial of the ``Massacre at
Carrefour Feuilles,'' as it is called, holds particular significance.
This is the first time many Haitians can remember a government in power
bringing to trial its own officials for alleged human rights violations.
``Everyone is looking for justice,'' said Gesula Bristol, a 26-year-old
law student who has not missed a day of the trial. ``This has made the
law come alive for us, and I think we've shown that the concept of
justice is important to us.' Haiti's chief of the national police,
Pierre Denize, was the first of 27 witnesses called to testify. In an
interview, he said that while the trial has not gone smoothly, Haitians
by and large are satisfied with the process. ``This is about
accountability,'' Denize said. The incident from which the charges stem
unfolded the evening of May 28 last year when officers from the Haitian
National Police closed off the working-class neighborhood of Carrefour
Feuilles in Port-au-Prince. It isn't clear whether they were seeking to
round up thieves or troublemakers. Witnesses said the 11 men were alive
when the officers took them into custody, putting them in the back of
their pickup trucks. But prosecutors said the officers later executed
the men by shooting them at close range. Lawyers for the defense said
the dead men belonged to an armed gang. Officials later determined that
none of the arrested men was armed. Haitians who own television sets
follow the trial tirelessly, keeping abreast of developments as
witnesses and experts troop in and out of the jammed courtroom at the
Palace of Justice. Radio broadcasts of the closing arguments could be
heard on city buses. So many people have been showing up everyday at the
trial that the government attempted to hook up a few television sets
outside the courtroom, but dropped the idea because of cost and frequent
power outages. Jean-Joseph Gerard, a 30-year-old unemployed technician,
acknowledged the underlying political importance of the trial. ``Lavalas
[Family] power is people's power,'' he said, referring to the political
party headed by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide that recently
swept elections for a new parliament. ``Food is expensive,
transportation is expensive, school uniforms are expensive. They have to
give people some satisfaction. That's why they're holding this trial.''
The prosecutors say the mastermind behind the killings was Police
Commissioner Jean Colls Rameau, who fled to the Dominican Republic
after the incident but was arrested later and brought back to Haiti. The
five other officers went into hiding.
Prosecutors played the tape of a radio conversation between Rameau and
a subordinate who is asking his superior what he should do with the
three men in his truck. Rameau, in a cryptic answer, replied in Creole,
``You know what you should do with them.'' ``He knew what was going to
happen to them,'' prosecutor Wilfrid Present, flapping the sleeve of his
robe, said as he pointed to Rameau. Sitting in the box
behind his lawyers, Rameau took off his glasses and lowered his head.
Danton Leger, a defense lawyer, upset the crowd in the courtroom when
he told the jury his clients were innocent. ``We're not looking for the
truth here,'' Leger, dressed in a heavy black robe, said. ``We were
looking for a scapegoat, heads had to roll, and the heads were
conveniently here.'' Judge Lise Pierre-Pierre, wearing a black hat with
a white tassel, spent several minutes trying to quiet the outraged
audience, which clearly believes the police are guilty.
To Jean-Baptiste Brown, a special assistant to the justice minister and
a member of the American Bar Association, the trial shows a commitment
from the state no longer to tolerate impunity. ``Whatever your rank,
economic, social or political status, everyone has the same rights,''
Brown said. ``It's a step forward for us.''
Whatever the outcome, said Gerard, others in the 6,000-member police
force should take heed. ``This is a message and they should hear it,''
he said. ``The message is that they can't get away with murder