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a519: Jean Dominique murder tests Haiti's democracy (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
(Wall St Journal, 29 Jan 02)
The Slaying of a Top Journalist Proves a Critical Trial for Haiti's
By JOSE DECORDOBA
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- On April 3, 2000, a killer lying in wait gunned
down broadcaster Jean Dominique on the steps of his radio station as he
arrived to deliver the 7 a.m. news.
The murder of the gaunt, intense Mr. Dominique, considered to be Haiti's
most important journalist, was like a kick to the nation's stomach. Three
days of official mourning were ordered. The columns of Haiti's wedding-cake
presidential palace were draped with black crepe. Sixteen thousand people
crammed the city's soccer stadium to attend the funeral. At the service,
then-President Rene Preval, a close friend of the 69-year-old slain
newsman, openly wept.
Solving the murder became a key test for Haiti's embattled democracy. Since
U.S. troops invaded to oust a brutal military regime in 1994, international
human-rights groups have blasted the island nation for backsliding into
lawlessness. In a speech to legislators, President Preval warned: If you
don't "do everything in your power to find justice for Jean Dominique, then
your own corpses will be found on the road to impunity."
The case has since taken many a bizarre turn. So far, the only corpses to
be found belonged to two suspects whom investigators had hoped could lead
them to the mastermind. Two successive judges have themselves been hounded
by death threats, as their search led them to the doorstep of one of
Haiti's most powerful politicians. "It's a strange, poisonous atmosphere,"
says Camille Leblanc, a former justice minister.
In Haiti, as in many former French colonies, criminal inquiries are handled
by an investigative judge, who functions as a cross between prosecutor and
grand jury. Despite the lofty title, such officials receive a meager salary
-- typically less than $400 a month -- and they have little real power. In
the aftermath of the Dominique murder, President Preval earmarked a few
thousand dollars from a presidential discretionary fund to supplement the
judge's security unit and pay for transportation.
The first judge assigned to the case, Jean Senat Fleury, had no shortage of
suspects. Mr. Dominique, a pop-eyed man with the sharp features of a bird
of prey, had been an equal-opportunity critic of the ruling class. Born
into the country's light-skinned, French-speaking elite, Mr. Dominique was
one of few educated Haitians able to cross the abyss and engage the mass of
the country's black, Creole-speaking people. The power of his microphone
had given him an extraordinary role in the country's search for democracy,
and he used it liberally to fire staccato bursts of tart-tongued editorial
commentary. For his pains, Mr. Dominique had been twice forced into exile,
the first time under the dictatorship of Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier
and then under the military regime which in 1991 overthrew President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The front of Mr. Dominique's radio station,
Haiti-Inter, pockmarked with bullet holes, had been shot up six times.
"There could be a thousand reasons for his death, but they boil down to one
thing -- he stood in the way of powerful and dangerous people," says
Patrick Elie, a former senior security official under Mr. Aristide.
In the months before his death, Mr. Dominique took aim at targets ranging
from a local pharmaceutical firm whose cough syrup was blamed for the death
of 80 children to the country's elections board, which he said had plans to
sabotage upcoming polls.
It wasn't long before Judge Fleury turned his attention to a powerful
member of President Preval's own populist Lavalas Family party, Dany
Toussaint. Dapper and charismatic, Mr. Toussaint is a former army officer
who at different times has been Mr. Aristide's personal bodyguard and the
chief of Haiti's police. During his successful run for senate two years
ago, Mr. Toussaint received more votes than any other aspiring legislator.
Though both were part of the same populist political movement, Mr.
Toussaint had also clashed in the past with the journalist. Six months
before his death, Mr. Dominique, in a radio editorial, had charged that Mr.
Toussaint was trying to strong-arm him into joining a slanderous media
campaign against two high-ranking police officials who were Mr. Toussaint's
"If Dany Toussaint takes other actions against me or against the radio
station, and if I survive, I will denounce him, shut the door, and go into
exile with my wife and children," he said on air.
An incident at Mr. Dominique's funeral seemed to offer an ugly punctuation
mark to the feud: A group of chimeres, thugs-for-hire from the city's worst
slums, dropped a pocket-sized election photograph of Mr. Toussaint into the
journalist's open casket.
Ten days after the murder, Judge Fleury ordered the arrest of an alleged
triggerman. According to the Inter-American Press Association, a trade
group that commissioned a report on the case, the man was a member of the
notorious Road Nine Gang, which operates in downtown Port-au-Prince,
collecting extortion money from merchants. Several other arrests followed.
In July 2000, Judge Fleury called Sen. Toussaint to his chambers to
testify. The senator complied, but showed up with a group of supporters who
hurled insults at the judge outside the courthouse. Judge Fleury received
death threats, and soon resigned, say people close to the case.
He was replaced in September of that year by Claudy Gassant. A sliver of a
man who barely fills out a business suit, Judge Gassant is one of a new
generation of Haitian jurists who reformers hope will remake the
notoriously corrupt Haitian justice system. A specialist in criminology,
Mr. Gassant studied law in France. After his return to Haiti, he was picked
as a promising young lawyer and returned to a special magistrate's school
"From a judicial point of view, it's a case like any other," insisted Judge
Gassant in a recent interview. But his actions suggested otherwise: After
taking the case, he sent his wife and son to live with relatives in
Judge Gassant declined to give details about the investigation, citing
confidentiality laws. But a report published last April by Paris-based
Reporters Without Borders, an independent group that promotes press freedom
around the world, pieces together a series of apparent breakthroughs.
Shortly after the murder, investigators had obtained detailed information
about three stolen vehicles used by the killer and his accomplices,
according to the report. The vehicles led to Jean-Wilner Lalanne, who
purportedly worked for a network that handled stolen cars.
When police went to pick him up, they shot Mr. Lalanne in the buttocks and
thigh, wounding him slightly, according to the IAPA report, published in
January 2001. During surgery to mend his thigh bone a few days later, Mr.
Lalanne suddenly died. The surgeon variously cited a heart attack and a
pulmonary embolism as the cause of death, according to Reporters Without
But Judge Gassant later became suspicious. He discovered that the surgeon
was a close friend of an associate of Mr. Toussaint, according to Reporters
Without Borders. He ordered an autopsy, but the body couldn't be located.
Judge Gassant issued a warrant for the arrest of the Toussaint associate,
and began investigating the doctor for possible manslaughter.
In November, another suspect was picked up by police in the provincial town
of Leogane. Judge Gassant hurried over to take custody of the prisoner. But
the local police handed the prisoner over to a mob outside instead. The
crowd killed him before his eyes, he says. "I saw the people cut him into
pieces with their machetes," says the judge. He fled in his car back to the
capital. The judge ordered the local police chief arrested, but the police
official was soon released from jail, according to Judge Gassant.
Nevertheless, Judge Gassant kept on the case. Last year, he questioned Sen.
Toussaint seven times.
By this time, Sen. Toussaint was attracting unfavorable attention
elsewhere. In a Dec. 20 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sen.
Mike DeWine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Porter
Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote that Mr.
Toussaint was one of two Haitian senators who "have been credibly linked by
a number of U.S. government agencies to narcotics trafficking in Haiti."
Mr. Toussaint is also on a U.S. State Department list of Haitians "credibly
alleged" to have committed "extra-judicial and political murders" in Haiti.
That effectively bars him from entering the U.S. According to the State
Department, Mr. Toussaint is a suspect in the death of a well-known lawyer
and Aristide critic who was gunned down in broad daylight on a busy
Mr. Toussaint, who also runs a security firm in Haiti, didn't respond to
interview requests, including one hand-delivered to him on the floor of
Haiti's Senate. In the past, however, Mr. Toussaint has said the
accusations against him are part of a right-wing U.S. plot to discredit Mr.
Aristide and the Lavalas Family party. The Haitian government declined to
comment on the accusations against Mr. Toussaint.
As the judge centered his attention on Mr. Toussaint, not a week went by
without anonymous death threats, he says. "I received phone calls reminding
me that I was not immortal," says Judge Gassant.
On one occasion, a Lavalas Family deputy in a car full of armed men blocked
the judge's vehicle on the street. The lawmaker told the judge that if he
continued in the direction he was going, he would kill him. Judge Gassant
says he took it as a threat about his investigation, not a commentary on
his driving. "He had an Uzi in his hand," he recalls. On another occasion,
Judge Gassant says, a car full of policemen bumped into his car by the
National Palace and aimed their automatic rifles at him menacingly.
In February, Mr. Aristide, a former Catholic priest, took office again
after an overwhelming electoral victory. Within a few months, according to
Judge Gassant, he stopped receiving money for office expenses and gasoline.
Because they weren't paid, some of his bodyguards stopped showing up, he
adds. A presidential spokesman says Mr. Aristide "is making every effort to
cast the light of justice on the Jean Dominique case," he says.
In May, Judge Gassant formally accused Sen. Toussaint of involvement in Mr.
Dominique's murder. Since then, Mr. Toussaint, making use of the immunity
he enjoys as a Senator, has refused to give further testimony to Judge
Gassant, who has sent a request to the Senate asking for it to lift Mr.
But only three of the Senate's 19 voting members, all of whom are members
of Mr. Aristide's ruling Lavalas Family party, have publicly favored
lifting Mr. Toussaint's immunity. One of the three, Sen. Pierre Prince,
says he has been threatened by Mr. Toussaint. "He said he had his own
connections with the Ministry of Justice and would use them to pursue me so
I couldn't open my mouth about the Dominique investigation," says Mr.
Mr. Toussaint hasn't been shy about his defiance of Judge Gassant. "With or
without immunity, whether [the judge] comes back or not, he won't ever hear
[the testimony of] Dany Toussaint again," Mr. Toussaint said in an
interview with Port-au-Prince's Radio Caraibe recently. Mr. Toussaint's
lawyer, Joseph Rigaud Duplan, says his client is a victim of a political
conspiracy and calls Judge Gassant a publicity hound.
On Jan 4., Judge Gassant's mandate ended. Soon after, a supervising judge
took the keys to his office. The fate of the Dominique investigation rests
now with Mr. Aristide, who hasn't reappointed Judge Gassant. Guy Paul, the
culture and communications minister, says Mr. Aristide wants to see justice
done but doesn't know if or when the president will renew the judge's term.
Last week a superior judge appointed another investigative judge to the
case. But Haiti's top prosecutor says it was an interim appointment to keep
the case going until Mr. Aristide makes a final decision on Judge Gassant's
fate. The appointment outraged Mr. Dominique's widow, Michel
Montas-Dominique, who has been leading the fight to bring her husband's
killers to justice. "Very few judges would have the courage and the ability
to bring the case as far as Gassant has brought it," she says. "It's a
delaying tactic." Now living in Florida, Judge Gassant says he probably
will seek political asylum in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Ms. Montas-Dominique keeps Mr. Dominique's case -- and even his
voice -- alive at Radio Haiti-Inter, where for three decades she broadcast
the morning news with him. "At Radio Haiti it is 7 a.m. and I say good
morning all," booms out the raspy voice of the late Mr. Dominique, captured
on tape, and replayed every morning on Haitian airwaves.
"Good morning, Jean," replies his widow, live, sitting near a glass bowl
full of spent bullets collected from past attacks on the radio station.
"Today is the 641st day that we have been demanding justice for Jean
Dominique, assassinated at this radio station," she says, before reading
the day's news.