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7370: The Case of Jean Dominique -- Part I (fwd)
FROM IMPUNITY NO MORE
By Ana Arana
Radio journalist, Radio Haiti
Bodies have disappeared, suspects have died unexpectedly and the cast of
characters who are said to have conspired to kill 69-year-old Jean Leopold
Dominique, Haiti's most prominent radio journalist, is a story more colorful
than any a mystery writer could dream up. Dominique was shot dead on April
3, 2000, as he arrived to work at his radio station. The first list of
suspects was long--former supporters of the Duvalier dynasty as well as
corrupt businessmen. But recently, the investigation indicates that
Dominique, a key advisor to former President René Préval, and a friend of
President Jean Bertrand Aristide, apparently was a victim of an internecine
conflict among members of Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas political party.
An investigation by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has found
that Dominique, a man who spent his life defending Haiti's poor, combining
journalism with leftist political activism, was killed in a political
conspiracy apparently planned and conceived over several months by leading
political figures tied to Aristide. Among those named in the investigation
as possible suspects are Sen. Dany Toussaint, a Machiavellian figure who
commands a lot of power inside Lavalas, and several of his allies who serve
in the Aristide government or are members of the Haitian Senate. These
officials, evidence indicates, viewed Dominique's independence and honesty
as a threat to their quest for power, and their involvement in corrupt
businesses, according to sources close to the investigation. A number of
sources provided valuable information to the IAPA on this investigation. But
because the murder conspiracy involves powerful and criminal figures in
Haiti, most sources agreed to talk only if they were not identified in the
report. The threats against the judge, witnesses and investigators on this
case are palpable. Already last January, a man who was allegedly passing on
information on the crime was killed in broad daylight in Port-au-Prince.
Even Dominique's widow, Michele Montas, who is legally able to learn details
about the investigation, was reticent to share much of her knowledge. "I am
part of the investigation so I have to be careful what I divulge publicly, "
Dominique's assassination shocked Haiti, because he was seen as an
unconditional, if critical, Lavalas supporter. His death was a dire signal
that the movement President Aristide built in the 1990s in opposition to the
corrupt Duvalier dynasty has serious internal rifts. Before his death,
Dominique harped that a patchwork of corrupt officials with links to
criminal networks, including drug trafficking and car theft, had hijacked
the political party. He had named influential, corrupt Lavalas officials in
his radio programs, in the hopes of promoting their dismissal from the
party. "Dominique thought he had more political clout than he did," said a
Haiti today is more divided and impoverished than when President Aristide
was returned to power by the U.S. Army in Oct. 1994, following a military
coup that ousted him from office for three years, after winning the 1990
presidential elections. Several political murders have shocked Haiti in the
last few years, but none of the victims was a loyal, long-term Lavalas
member like Dominique. During the first ten months after the murder, the
government lost precious time following false leads, and the investigation
was seriously stalled.
Not until October 2000 did the case advance significantly. The reason
apparently was outgoing President Préval's willingness to use his last
remaining months in office trying to solve the murder. The Préval
administration allocated more money for witness protection, for bodyguards
for Dominique's widow, and for security for the investigating judge, a man
who has received serious death threats. Préval's decision came despite
internal suspicions among Lavalas party officials that the case could have a
negative impact on President Aristide's second term in office. As an example
of this paranoia, party officials have directly told Dominique's widow,
Michele Montas, that the case is dangerous for Aristide.
The IAPA believes a quick resolution of the Dominique case should be held as
a litmus test of the Aristide Administration's decision to respect press
freedom in Haiti. Already Dominique's murder has had an indelible impact on
how journalists do their work. Several threats against the press have
prompted international response, but the use of vigilante mobs to pressure
the news media against critical reporting apparently continues to be
promoted by top Lavalas officials.
Dominique had a violent end in a country where political allies quickly
become enemies. "What people don't understand is that these officials who
are in power today are determined to stay there and won't do anything they
fear is going to affect their power base. Dominique was so close to power he
underestimated the danger," said Marvel Dandin, of Radio Kiskeya, an
independent radio station also under attack by Lavalas supporters.
Aristide was elected president last November after contested legislative and
presidential elections. Most of the opposition refused to participate in the
presidential elections. Today that opposition, united under a group called
the Democratic Convergence, which includes most political parties, in
addition to former Lavalas people, refuses to compromise and has elected a
symbolic parallel government in clear defiance of Aristide.
Aristide's second term as president begins as the country faces its worst
political, economic and public safety crisis. Unless he comes to an
agreement with the opposition, the country won't receive $500 million in
international aid. International aid is necessary. Haiti is the poorest
country in Latin America according to the United Nations-with 80 percent
unemployment, a 15 percent inflation and a population growth of 2.1 percent.
The next few years will be difficult for Haiti.
Most intellectual and political sectors in Haiti say Lavalas has contributed
to the crisis by its incapacity to tolerate dissent, and its willingness to
look away in the face of corruption among its members. Lavalas remains a
powerful political force because of Aristide's cult popularity among the
Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party has become a haven for vigilante groups,
known as Chimères. These vigilante mobs are allegedly hired to frighten the
opposition. During Dominique's funeral, these protesters burned the
political party headquarters of opposition leader Evans Paul, a former
Most sources with knowledge about the Dominique investigation said they
believe President Aristide was not interested in getting rid of Dominique,
the most prominent Fanmi Lavalas leader killed to date. But foreign and
Haitian sources believe sectors within Lavalas are completely independent of
Aristide. They point out that Aristide's failure to publicly denounce the
Dominique murder, other political assassinations, and attacks against the
opposition and the press, have only encouraged more abuses.
Others are even more openly critical of Aristide and cast more doubts on the
role he plays in Haiti's political circles. "He continues to be an important
figure in Haiti and in Lavalas," said one source. "In these matters you don'
t have to say a word. A nod, or a gesture, can been interpreted as tacit
approval," said one Haiti expert.
Michele Montas, Dominique's widow agreed. "I don't think Aristide had
anything to do with anything related to Jean's death. But he doesn't control
everyone in his party," she said adamantly when asked about the possibility.
Montas remains shaken up by the decision to murder her husband who remained
a loyal party member until his death. "It's ironic," she said. "We never
dreamed this was a possibility."
Close Aristide associates said Dominique was hated by many people because of
his acid editorials in a country where people are more muted in their
criticism of others. Brian Concannon, an American lawyer who works with a
legal aid group formerly called Lawyers for Aristide, said many people
wanted to get rid of Dominique. He also argued that Western journalists were
too willing to point the finger to people close to Aristide just to hurt the
newly elected president.
Six years after Operation Uphold Democracy, which brought Aristide back to
Haiti in an ambitious military display, and approximately $3 billion in
international assistance, the Clinton Administration's Haiti policy is being
declared responsible for the current debacle in Haiti. "What happened with
the Clinton Administration is that they wanted a success so badly they never
questioned problems as they surfaced, and as a result the situation just got
messier," said one congressional source.
US Haiti policy has been marred by the fact it became so divisive in
Washington during the Clinton Administration, pitting Democrats against
Republicans in a manner not seen since the Nicaragua Contra War.
Complicating the issue was the fact that key policy makers became too
involved in Haitian politics. Several members of the Congressional Black
Caucus, for instance, serve in Aristide's Foundation, sending mixed signals
to Haitian officials. Similarly, such organizations as the International
Republican Institute (IRI) had as its in-country director a Haitian-American
whose family had been pro-Duvalier. IRI was forced to close its office after
several attacks against its representatives and headquarters.
Aristide supporters are highly suspicious of anything American, but they
still want the aid, which is partially American and European. IRI's
involvement in helping organize the Democratic Convergence, the loose
anti-Aristide opposition umbrella group, has been another pebble in the
shoe, in this highly paranoid country. So willing are people to believe in
American malfeasance that a rumor that Dominique was killed by the Americans
was credible in the first months after the murder. Aiding that rumor was an
unfortunate incident where a key informant and possible hit man in the case
turned out to be a Haitian man who had an independent relationship with the
Public Affairs office at the US Embassy.
Until his death Dominique was intensely critical of U.S. policy. He thought
conservative sectors in the United States wanted to finish Lavalas and posed
a danger to Aristide's hopes to win a second run for the presidency. Thus
months before his murder he criticized the role of US organizations such as
the IRI, IFES and USAID, which were directly involved in the initial
preparation of May's legislative elections. In his typewriter, he left an
unfinished editorial on the role the United States had played in Haiti since
Ironically, as with anything in Haiti, it is the country's nemesis, the
United States, that gets the ball rolling. In the Dominique case, it might
well be US attention that may convince Aristide to take the case to court,
despite serious opposition within his party. The US is interested in the
case because it is a good vehicle to tackle powerful Haitian government
officials involved in drug trafficking.
But Joanne Mariner, Deputy Director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch,
said it was important for the Bush administration to move forward beyond
drugs, and look at the Dominique murder and other political assassinations,
as a way of helping Haiti improve its judicial system and end impunity.
"Human Rights Watch will be closely following the progress of the
investigation into Dominique's killing, and, in our view, so should the
Administration. The outcome of this case will be an important indicator of
the strength and reliability of the Haitian justice system," she said.
An irascible and critical reporter, Dominique made many enemies because of
the caustic editorials he delivered on his morning and afternoon radio
shows. His enemies at the time of his death ranged from far right Duvalier
supporters to far left Lavalas populist supporters.
The son of a mulatto, upper-class family in caste-ridden Haiti, Dominique
was considered an enemy of his class because of a lifelong support for the
poor in Haiti. A trained agronomist, Dominique turned to radio journalism in
the 1960s with a one-hour program he hosted on a time-leased slot on Radio
Haiti. By 1971, he had purchased the station, and began a meteoric rise in
the profession because of his bombastic style and willingness to challenge
abuses of power.
A passionate speaker, with a colorful command of French and Creole,
Dominique used the radio waves to oppose Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, his
son "Baby Doc", and the military juntas that ruled Haiti until the early
1990s. He was exiled twice. In 1980, after his station was destroyed, he
went to the United States with his wife Michele, and returned to Haiti only
after a popular revolt overthrew Baby Doc Duvalier in February 1986. In
1991, when a military coup ousted President Aristide, he again went into
exile in the U.S., only returning in 1994, when President Aristide was
brought back by the U.S. military.
He became extremely popular throughout Haiti, especially among peasants in
the countryside because his station often addressed issues of land ownership
and agriculture. His station was the first to offer Creole-language radio
programs, a decision later copied by others in a country where 90 percent of
its citizens are illiterate and speak Creole, not French, the official
language. "Dominique helped lay down the groundwork for an independent press
in Haiti," wrote Jean Jean-Pierre, a journalist who lives in New York.
Dominique and his wife hosted Inter Actualites, Radio Haiti's most popular
morning show, which included news reports, commentary and editorials.
Montas, a US-trained journalist, delivered the national news, while
Dominique read international news, and wrote the station's editorials and
commentary, which were sizzling tirades against corrupt politicians and
An early Aristide supporter, Dominique embraced his handpicked successor,
President René Préval, who served from 1996 to February 2001. Also an
agronomist, Préval and Dominique both believed in bringing change in Haiti
through political access in the countryside. Together they founded Kozepep,
a peasant organization that could congregate thousands of peasants for
political meetings and began to run into problems with the Lavalas
leadership, who saw it as competition. Several Kozepep members were attacked
by Lavalas in Haiti's interior. Although many serious problems affected the
Préval government, including his decision to dissolve the Parliament,
Dominique had hope with Préval.
"He was more of a politician than a journalist," said Max Chauvet, editor of
Le Nouvelliste, the leading daily in Haiti.
A casual dresser in this tropical capital, where men wear coats and ties in
90-degree weather, Dominique preferred to work in shirtsleeves and shoes
without socks. But he was an unbending moral conservative. He told his wife
he would not permit Lavalas, which means cleansing flood in Creole, to
become dominated by corrupt officials.
Dominique remained supportive of Aristide, according to Montas. Even at
times when other prominent Lavalas members became part of the growing
Aristide opposition, Dominique stayed with the party. In 1996, for example,
when leaders of the Lavalas Political Organization (OPL), which supported
Aristide's first election in 1990, refused to endorse Aristide's desire to
lengthen his first presidential term, and broke off, Dominique stayed on.
Dominique joined Aristide's new Fanmi Lavalas, helping rescue the Lavalas'
popular name recognition away from the other party, which became known as
OPL. Dominique told Aristide on several occasions he needed to clean up
Lavalas of unsavory characters who were engaged in corruption and drug
trafficking. In the end, Dominique seemed to have been failed by those he
"Jean's motto was transparency, truth and participation," said Montas, an
elegant, soft-spoken 54-year-old woman who continues to run Radio Haiti, and
is determined to keep her husband's name in the news until the case is
In May 2000, a month after Dominique's murder, Lavalas won 72 of 82 Lower
House seats and 18 of 19 Senate seats. They won another eight seats in the
November elections. But the tabulating methods used to count votes in the
May elections are hotly contested. Vote counting in nine areas was declared
irregular by both the Haitian opposition and independent international
organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the
United Nations. "If Dominique were alive, he would not have allowed this to
go unnoticed," said a political observer.
The day he was killed, Dominique arrived at the radio station at his usual
time-shortly after 6 a.m. to have a few minutes alone with his editorial.
The news show started at 7 a.m.
The killers apparently watched the station for two weeks prior to the
murder. During that time Michele Montas had been arriving at the station
with Dominique because of a back problem. That was not their normal routine.
They had different schedules and preferred to take different cars. As fate
would have it on April 3, 2000, Montas was driving herself for the first
time in days. "Apparently they had two shooters. I suppose one was for me,"
she explained in an interview in her second floor office at Radio Haiti
Dominique drove up to the station's entrance on Delmas Road, a thoroughfare
connecting the upscale neighborhood of Petionville and downtown
Port-au-Prince. Jean-Claude Louissaint, the security guard, opened the blue
metal gate. One man was loitering nearby, but Dominique did not pay
attention. Two cars were parked in front of the station with other men
Dominique parked and took a few steps towards the station's door. The man
loitering entered the gate on foot. Catching up to Dominique he pulled a gun
and shot him seven times with deadly hollow-point bullets-in case he was
wearing a bulletproof vest. One shot pierced his aorta. The gunman then shot
and killed the security guard. "Jean would not have survived his wounds,"
said Michele Montas, who found the bodies when she arrived at the station a
few minutes later.