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9265: A judge in search of justice (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <email@example.com>
A judge in search of justice
Haitian probing murder claims interference, under guard
BY YVES COLON
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Claudy Gassant sounds like he needs a couch. He
complains that no one understands him. What really bothers him, though, is
the feeling that's been with him for the past year that Lady Justice is on
broken knees in his country.
He fears she may not get back up; he ought to know. He's a judge.
Gassant fears for his life, he says, because powerful people in Haiti's
government, specifically a young senator close to the president, might be
implicated in a double murder he's investigating.
Gassant's case has prompted accusations that the government, struggling to
build confidence in its efforts to set up a country of laws, might be
shielding those in the inner circle from justice.
Gassant sleeps in a different place every night and walks around with two
bodyguards, both armed with machine guns. Anonymous callers phone to tell
him to drop the case. Earlier this year, he moved his wife and 3-year-old
son to South Florida, for their safety.
`APPLY THE LAW'
He doubts whether he has the resolve to stay behind much longer.
``All I want to do is to apply the law,'' says Gassant, who wears designer
suits on his thin frame. ``What the others want, I don't know.''
By others he means members of the government of President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide. The president won't lift a finger, he claims. The chief justice,
his boss, is threatening him, he adds. The minister of justice, he says,
tries to tell him what to do, and won't give Gassant the tools he needs to
do his job.
``The executive is against me, the legislative is against me, and the
judiciary, too,'' Gassant says.
``I'm so afraid I don't know of whom to be afraid.''
Gary Lissade, the justice minister, says his office has modest means, and
that he has done everything possible to help Gassant. He has provided the
bodyguards. When Gassant asked for a laptop computer, a luxury for an
impoverished government, he got it, Lissade says.
``We have done everything the judge has asked of us,'' Lissade says. ``All
we want from him is a decision. It would be a victory for Haitian justice if
this were done, a victory that would mark the end of impunity, a true
demonstration of what Haitian justice is about. That's what we want to see,
that those responsible for this crime are brought to justice.''
In April of last year, gunmen who had been waiting in the dark shot Jean
Dominique and a guard as Dominique was about to enter his Radio Haiti-Inter.
A popular commentator, Dominique was a supporter of Aristide and his Lavalas
Family party, but had become increasingly critical of some party members.
``What he was doing was denouncing corruption within the Lavalas party and
denouncing certain alliances that would lead the party away from its
original mission,'' said Michelle Montas-Dominique, his widow, who now runs
the station. ``He was a very passionate person much engaged in the
democratic fight. He felt that he had a mission.''
The first investigative judge who took the case quit under pressure.
Gassant says he wasn't afraid when the file landed on his desk.
Six suspects were arrested and more than 80 people called in for
questioning. Then, Gassant pointed fingers at one of the most powerful
people in Haiti, Sen. Dany Toussaint. A former military officer who became
Aristide's bodyguard, Toussaint has built his own political base among the
Called for questioning, Toussaint accepted at first, but refused to return
after Gassant accused him directly. Toussaint's senate colleagues denied
Gassant's request to revoke Toussaint's parliamentary immunity, but are
reconsidering because of public pressure.
``If he's innocent as he says, he should go to a court of law and defend
himself,'' said Montas-Dominique. ``What he's trying to do is stop the whole
Toussaint did not respond to several requests for an interview, but on
Haitian radio, where he makes infrequent comments, he has accused the judge
of using the case for political purposes. He called Gassant ``a little judge
Four other arrest orders have yet to be executed. Although police say
officially that they're searching for the accused, two of the men recently
held a press conference without incident.
``More and more, the passivity of the government in this case can be taken
for complicity,'' said Robert Ménard, general secretary of Reporters Without
Borders, which has been pushing the government to bring the accused to
Because of Dominique's stature -- he was a friend of former President Rene
Preval -- the case has drawn the attention of Hollywood as well. Woody
Allen, Julia Roberts and Robert Redford, along with such noted writers as
Toni Morrison and Stephen King, have lent their names to the cause.
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who led the effort, collected their signatures for
a letter he sent to Lissade asking that justice be done.
OUTSIDE THE ELITE
Those who know Judge Gassant say he has been successful at pushing the case
so far because he's an outsider, which counts for a lot in Haiti, where
everyone in the small circle of the elite that governs the country knows one
Gassant, 36, studied law in France, then returned to Haiti as a specialist
in criminology, working for the Canadian international development agency.
Along with its U.S. counterpart, the organization financed judicial reform
Singled out as a promising young lawyer, Gassant was picked to return to
France, this time to the Ecole de la Magistrature in Bordeaux, a two-year
school for judges. He could have remained in France, or gone to the United
States, he says. But he chose to return to Haiti.
``I wanted to help my country,'' he says. ``I told myself that they don't
need me in France, or in the United States. I wanted to be of use here. I
knew things would be difficult, but not like this.''
He became an investigative magistrate in 1999. Gassant compares his role to
that of Kenneth Starr, the judge who investigated allegations of misconduct
by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
``This is the case of a lifetime,'' said Montas-Dominique. ``Now he's the
best-known judge in Haiti.''
That notoriety is hurting him, he says. Not long ago, Gassant says, someone
broke into the office of a special judge and stole files related to drug
trafficking. One of them showed up in his office, Gassant says.
``I'm afraid they're trying to set me up,'' he says. ``That scares me.''
The chief justice has tried to get him arrested, Gassant says, after he was
assigned the case of political dissidents arrested for stocking weapons in
their office. His orders are not being followed.
Those who want him to quit won't get their wish, he promises.
``This means I'm a stick in the wheels of Haitian justice,'' he says. ``No
one in this country makes me feel like I'm doing a positive job. Everybody
is against Judge Gassant. No one understands Judge Gassant.''
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