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#5159: 22 face trial in Haiti over "94 massacre (fwd)
Published Sunday, September 24, 2000, in the Miami Herald
22 face trial in Haiti over '94 massacre BY YVES COLON
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Against a background of treeless and dry hills away
from the capital, Haitian prosecutors are about to begin a
long-awaited trial against former military officers and their
associates, among them the men who led the coup that ousted President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide nine years ago, precipitating an eventual U.S.
military invasion. The trial will be held in historic Gonaves, once a
thriving port that has been reduced to a dusty town between the capital
and the northern part of the country. Two large tents have been set up
on the courthouse grounds, anticipating the crowds expected when the
trial opens Friday. The 22 defendants are accused of taking part in a
bloody rampage in which dozens of residents of Raboteau, a beachside
Gonaves slum, were rounded up, beaten and shot to death. Although it has
been more than six years, the memory of Raboteau has remained as bright
as the midday sun in the minds of those who survived.
Witnesses such as Fritz Desir recall the predawn hours of April 22,
1994, when soldiers and paramilitary gunmen surrounded the slum, where
support for Aristide was strong, and shot down men, women and children
as they fled toward the sea and their fishing boats. Many bodies were
lost at sea. ``They beat me up,'' said Desir, 37, an unemployed diesel
mechanic. ``I saw men shot in front of me. My wife and I lost a baby
because of this.'' When it was over, witnesses claimed that at least 28
people had died. Some men were beaten so badly that chunks of flesh were
missing from their buttocks. Pregnant women were left with deep bruises
on their bellies, and young girls went vacant-eyed after being raped.
Soldiers hastily buried some victims in shallow graves, which were soon
dug up by pigs and dogs.
NOT IN CUSTODY
Missing from the dock, however, will be the real targets of the trial
-- leaders of the military junta that came to power in the September
1991 coup. They are accused of being responsible for the Gonaves
massacre. The leaders were spirited out of the country, fled across the
border to the Dominican Republic, or left under an agreement negotiated
by a delegation headed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on the eve
of a U.S.-led invasion. Raoul Cedras and Philippe Biamby, who headed the
junta, now live in Panama, while police chief Michel François is in
Honduras. Extradition requests have been rejected by both countries.
Eight other former members of the military high command, including Col.
Carl Dorelien, a Florida lottery winner, are believed to be in South
Florida. All are being charged with murder, along with Emmanuel ``Toto''
Constant, leader of the Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and
Progress of Haiti, the paramilitary group behind the massacre, who now
lives in Queens, a New York City borough. A conviction might expedite
extradition. Haitians meanwhile will pay particular attention to this
trial as another step in the slow process of rebuilding their country's
legal system, a victim of decades of dictatorship and political turmoil.
They also want to find out whether the trial of six
police officers here at the beginning of the month was an aberration.
Four of them were found guilty of murder and sentenced to three years in
jail. As with that trial, the one scheduled in Gonaves will take place
before a jury. The panel is expected to be sequestered because of fears
of intimidation by supporters of the accused.
``This kind of trial has never gone on before'' in Haiti, said Brian
Concannon, a 36-year-old American lawyer with the Bureau of
International Lawyers, the office that for the last four years has been
helping Haitian prosecutors prepare complaints, search for witnesses and
plan strategy for the trial.
CATALYST FOR ACTION
The office was set up to break Haitian tradition, in a sense, by
prodding the government into investigating wrongdoing by those in power
after political transitions, of which there have been eight in the last
15 years. Gonaves, over the years, has become the bellwether of national
discontent. The foundations of President Jean-Claude Duvalier's power
began to shake after Gonaves residents took to the streets in a mock
funeral in 1986. Again, in 1994, Haitians, certain that the military
junta was on its way out, broke out in celebration in the town -- an
event broadcast on national television. That event precipitated the
The Gonaves killings forced the Clinton administration to revise its
ineffective Haiti policy. It called on the U.N. Security Council to
adopt a resolution imposing a worldwide embargo against Haiti unless
members of the military junta in Port-au-Prince resigned or left the
country within 15 days. It took several months before members of the
junta fled Haiti, just ahead of 20,000 U.S. troops who effectively
occupied the country. Aristide later disbanded the army.
Over the last four years, Concannon and Haitian prosecutor Mario Joseph
have cataloged the crimes, filing eight charges of murder, as well as
charges of torture, assault, abuse of authority, illegal arrest,
imprisonment and attempted murder.
Forensic anthropologists from the United States in 1995 and 1998
recovered some bodies and identified them through DNA. A former
Argentinian army colonel who researched the structure of the army is
expected to testify. ``This is going to prove the extent of the
liability of superior officers and the responsibility of subordinates,''
Joseph said. ``Every Haitian is a victim.' Getting the trial to this
point is an achievement, Concannon said. ``It's been four frustrating
years,'' he said. ``The system wasn't up to this four years ago. After
the trial of the police officers, people now realize that this can be
done. Practice makes