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a637: Haitian whodunit embarrasses government (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
(St Petersburg Times, 27 Jan 02)
Haitian whodunit embarrasses government
Who killed Jean Dominique in a hail of bullets? Some say Haiti's top
officials want to keep the answer to that question hidden.
By DAVID ADAMS, Latin America Correspondent
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Michele Montas was driving to work one day in April 2000
when the morning news broadcast broke off, giving way to music.
The disruption meant more to Montas than it would to the average
commuter -- she and her husband owned the radio station -- and she picked
up her cell phone to call the newsroom and find out what was happening.
"I can't tell you," said Immacula Placide, co-anchor of the morning
news. "Come quickly, come quickly."
It took only a few minutes for Montas to reach the entrance of Radio
Haiti Inter. There she found her husband, Jean, lying unconscious in a pool
of blood in a courtyard. He had been shot four times in the neck and heart.
Montas rushed upstairs to her office to call for help, but it arrived
too late. Jean Dominique, Haiti's most influential journalist, was dead at
the age of 69.
The murder stunned the country. Haiti's president declared three days of
mourning and ordered the national palace draped in black. Some 16,000
people packed the capital's soccer stadium for Dominique's funeral.
Now, 21 months later, the search for the journalist's killers has turned
into a dramatic test of Haiti's justice system. One of the chief suspects
is a powerful senator. The investigating judge has fled to Florida, fearing
for his life. And Michele Montas is wearing black and fighting for answers.
"I want justice for Jean and I'm going to get it," she says. "The point
is, if they can kill Jean Dominique, then we are all in danger."
Born into Haiti's light-skinned mulatto elite, Dominique -- "Jando" to
his friends -- broke ranks to become an early champion of the country's
poor peasants and slum dwellers. After training as an agronomist in France
he turned to journalism as a vehicle for social change.
Wearing a trademark black leather cap and armed only with a pipe and a
typewriter, Dominique would revolutionize Haitian broadcasting. Realizing
radio's potential to reach the country's illiterate poor majority, he began
broadcasting not just in French, the language of the elite, but in Creole.
Over four decades his vehement, witty and deeply probing editorials became
famous for denouncing abuses by those in power.
Behind the microphone his beady eyes, angular jaw and skeletal cheeks
gave him an intense, hawklike look. His rasping voice, acid tongue and
mocking on-air laughter earned him almost legendary status among peasant
groups and prodemocracy activists. But they also made him an enemy of
Haiti's dictators, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude
While there were things in Haiti he dared not report on, he cleverly
used accounts of upheaval in other repressed countries as a way to raise
political awareness at home. In 1979 the station closely followed the
toppling of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua and the fall of the shah
Dominique was acutely aware of the dangers he ran. He jokingly called
his style of consciousness-raising journalism "risky business."
The bullet-riddled facade of Radio Haiti Inter testifies to the
station's front line role in the country's fight for freedom and democracy.
The bullets date from at least six different attacks between 1980 and 1994.
Dominique and his wife were twice forced to flee into exile.
On their return to Haiti in 1986 after the collapse of the Duvalier
regime, a crowd of 60,000 greeted Dominique at Haiti's international
With the help of donations from all over the country, Radio Haiti Inter
The station soon was charting an emerging grass-roots popular movement
known as Lavalas, led by a diminutive Salesian priest with a radical
discourse: the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Dominique became an enthusiastic supporter of Aristide's victorious 1990
presidential campaign. He described it at the time as "the most wonderful
experience of my life."
But when a bloody military coup forced Aristide from power in 1991,
Dominique's radio station was shut down. He and his wife spent two months
in hiding before fleeing once more to New York.
Only when U.S. troops intervened in 1994 to reinstate Aristide were they
able to return.
But Dominique quickly became concerned by the path Haiti's young
democracy was taking. He feared Aristide, who had left office in 1996 but
continued to be a force in the Lavalas movement, was forsaking the cause of
the people for the trappings of money and power.
As the 2000 elections approached and Aristide announced his intention to
again seek the presidency, Dominique's questions became bolder. Much of his
ire was aimed at a flamboyant Family Lavalas leader named Dany Toussaint.
Once considered a rising star in Haiti's new police force, Toussaint,
now 44, was just the kind of rogue political opportunist Dominique feared
was derailing the Lavalas movement.
Elected to the Senate in May 2000, Toussaint, who declined to be
interviewed for this article, has made no secret of his presidential
ambitions. He also is said to command a gang of as many as 1,500 armed men
in Cite Soleil, a sprawling coastal slum on the edge of the capital.
A former officer in the Haitian military, Toussaint was sent in 1985 to
learn English at a Pentagon language program at Lackland Air Force Base in
Texas. He went on to get advanced military training at Fort Benning in
A black belt in tae kwon do, Toussaint liked to boast of his connections
to U.S. intelligence agencies. He told the Miami New Times in 1997 that he
was trained by the CIA to conduct surveillance of dissidents for the
Haitian military. "I was the best clandestine photographer in Haiti," he
told the paper.
He quit the Haitian army in 1987, denouncing military plots to kill
Aristide, who was at the time only a radical slum priest.
When Aristide was elected president, Toussaint was an obvious choice to
head his security. During the 1991 coup that ousted Aristide, he proved
himself as one of only a few officers who put up resistance. When Aristide
was taken prisoner and flown out of the country, Toussaint followed.
After a spell working at a Coconut Grove grocery store in Miami, he
returned to Haiti with Aristide in 1994. He was appointed interim police
chief working closely with the U.S. troops to re-establish democratic
But Toussaint had a falling out with the Americans. In late 1997 his
name was put on an immigration blacklist by the State Department, allegedly
linked to the 1995 double homicide of a prominent Haitian lawyer and her
client. The pair were killed after the lawyer's car was ambushed by gunmen
in a busy Port-au-Prince street.
Now U.S. officials accuse him of drug ties. Last month Florida Rep.
Porter Goss, chairman of the U.S. House Select Committee on Intelligence,
and Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican on the Senate Intelligence
Committee, notified Secretary of State Colin Powell that Toussaint has been
"credibly linked by a number of U.S. government agencies to narcotics
trafficking in Haiti."
It's not clear how much of this Dominique was aware of. "He didn't have
files on people," said Montas, a graduate of the Columbia University School
of Journalism. "He was just good at picking up scraps of information."
One Haitian politician, Sen. Pierre Prince, recalls meeting Dominique
shortly before his death.
"He knew he might die," Prince said. "But he told me he would point his
finger at his murderers before they got to him."
To many minds, that's exactly what Dominique did in October 1999.
After the Oct. 8 murder of Haiti's incoming police chief, Dominique
issued a public warning to Aristide.
In an editorial broadcast Oct. 19, he told Aristide to beware of "the
ambitions" of Toussaint.
"I know he has weapons. I know he has enough money to pay and arm
henchmen," he said. "Here I have no other weapons than my profession as a
journalist, my microphone and my unbreakable faith as a militant for
change, real change."
He went on: "If Dany Toussaint tries something against me or the radio
station and if I survive, I'll close the station down and go into exile
once again with my wife and children."
Six months later he was dead.
At first the investigation made good progress.
Dominique had been a close friend and adviser to President Rene Preval
who was deeply affected by his death, openly weeping at the funeral.
An investigating judge backed by a team of judicial police and
bodyguards was put on the case. (Under Haiti's French-influenced legal
system, a judge performs the role given to prosecutors in the United
Investigators rounded up dozens of witnesses. Evidence soon pointed to a
carefully planned assassination involving a network of people and large
sums of money.
Six arrests were made, including two men believed to be the gunmen.
"It was a very dynamic investigation which went all over the country,"
said former Justice Minister Camille LeBlanc.
The handling of the case was unprecedented. A string of equally
high-profile political assassinations had gone unprosecuted in Haiti for
"For me the Dominique case was an opportunity for the Haitian justice
system to show it can work," LeBlanc added. "The message had to be clear
that impunity would not be tolerated."
But the case was fraught with difficulties.
One witness mysteriously died on the operating table 13 days after he
was detained in a brief gunbattle. Although his wounds were not
life-threatening -- he was hit by several bullets in the backside and thigh
-- a doctor recorded his cause of death as a pulmonary embolism. But before
a proper autopsy could be performed, the man's body disappeared from the
morgue. The doctor also vanished.
But the real problems began when the investigating judge began to focus
his investigation on Toussaint.
The case remains officially shrouded in judicial secrecy, so it is hard
to pinpoint how he became implicated. Some accounts say investigators were
led to Toussaint through a car theft ring that supplied the vehicles used
in the assassination.
The day of the murder at least two gunmen and five accomplices are
believed to have been waiting outside the radio station. The getaway car
was apparently identified by witnesses as a red Nissan Pathfinder.
Toussaint's conduct during the investigation heightened suspicions.
Instead of simply declaring his innocence as others brought in for
questioning had done, he brazenly sought to defy the courts.
When the judge summoned Toussaint for the first of several interviews,
an angry mob of hired thugs surrounded the court building.
After a series of death threats, the judge got cold feet and had to be
removed from the case.
The investigation gathered pace anew after a second judge, Claudy
Gassant, was appointed in September 2000. A gutsy young French-trained
magistrate, Gassant, 36, leapt at the case with all the enthusiasm of an
idealist out to make his mark.
But when he too tried to interview Toussaint in early November, he was
Pressure on the judge mounted, including weekly death threats.
Gassant sent his wife and 4-year-old son to stay with relatives in South
Florida. A special police team was detailed to protect him.
Eventually Toussaint agreed to testify in February last year.
But by then the political situation had shifted. Preval's term as
president ended that same month. After an absence of five years, Aristide
was voted back in.
The Dominique investigation immediately began to run into new, largely
Gassant's budget was taken away. So too was his daytime security. Only
at night a lone police officer guarded his home. Soon after the
presidential transition, Gassant said his car was intercepted in the street
outside his office by armed men, led by a former deputy head of
presidential security and a Toussaint associate. After guns were pointed at
the judge, he was warned his car would be riddled with bullets if he
continued with the case.
Undaunted, on May 25 Gassant filed sealed preliminary charges against
Recently elected to the Senate, he claimed parliamentary immunity. When
Gassant filed a petition to have his immunity lifted, the judge was openly
ridiculed in the Senate, which is dominated by the Family Lavalas party.
But legal experts say Haiti's constitution only affords limited immunity
to senators, and it does not apply when a judge brings formal charges.
"Dany Toussaint has no legal basis for claiming immunity," said LeBlanc,
the former Justice minister. "If he was innocent he would ask for his
immunity to be lifted. Either he has bad legal advice or he's guilty."
Toussaint certainly does not lack for high-priced legal advice. He is
represented by Joseph Rigaud Duplan, a three-time president of the Haitian
Bar Association, whose clients include some of Haiti's top ex-military.
"It's all a big show," said Rigaud Duplan, accusing Gassant of
incompetence. "Gassant has failed to make a case."
Last month a potential witness was detained by police, only to be
grabbed by a machete-wielding street mob and hacked to death just as
Gassant arrived to interview him.
On Jan. 4, Gassant's term as investigating judge expired. Under Haiti's
legal system, the president has the sole authority to appoint judges and
renew their terms.
Four days later Gassant was relieved of the keys to his office. Hours
later he learned his name was on a Lavalas Family death list.
"I was told I had a choice of leaving the country or being
assassinated," he said.
He bought a ticket to Miami that same afternoon.
Interviewed briefly at Port-au-Prince airport moments before he left the
next day, Gassant looked extremely nervous. Accompanied by friends, he
complained the government was doing nothing to protect his life. He said he
was using his $370-a-month salary to pay for his protection.
He was much more relaxed when interviewed 10 days later at a Boca Raton
mall near where he is staying with relatives.
Citing Haitian judicial procedure he declined to discuss the evidence in
the investigation. But he openly blamed the government for deliberately
stalling the case.
"I summed up the situation and I figured I was in too much danger," he
said. Left with no other option, he is preparing to file for political
asylum in the United States.
Two days after Gassant fled, Toussaint bragged to Radio Caraibe that
Gassant would never be able to bring charges against him.
"Whether the judge comes back or not he will never take testimony from
Dany Toussaint again, with or without immunity."
Dominique's widow, Michele Montas, doesn't blame the judge for leaving.
"He has had a great deal of courage to go as far as he has. But the case
will go on with or without him," she said. "This is the only case of its
kind that has managed to stay alive for 21 months. It's not going to die
now. In fact it just keeps getting bigger."
Indeed, the case might soon get an infusion of prominence from filmmaker
Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs. Demme, a friend of
Dominique who had been chronicling the journalist's life for several years
before his murder, is preparing a feature-length documentary about him for
release later this year. Demme has also put together an alliance of writers
and actors, including Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, seeking justice in
the Dominique investigation.
Montas also is reluctant to pass judgment on Aristide. While she says
it's true that relations between Aristide and her husband had "cooled" in
the last months of his life, she refuses to abandon faith in him.
She said Aristide had twice visited her privately in the last two months
to give his personal assurance that justice would be done.
Last week Aristide officially replaced Gassant.
Montas said she believes Aristide wants to see the case resolved. But
she worries he is increasingly a prisoner of the militant wing in his
Few Haitians dare speak openly about the influence of Toussaint. That
has been left mostly to foreign observers.
"Dany Toussaint is the dark side of the regime," said Robert Menard,
secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, a group based in Paris that
defends press freedom and has taken an active interest in the case.
"Everybody knows this regime lives off drugs. Toussaint knows all the
Aristide has given some recent signs that he intends to root out
corruption. At a gathering of Family Lavalas leaders in mid December, he
told them to clean up their act, warning them to stay clear of drugs.
Three days later there was an attempted coup. Thirty armed men attacked
the national palace in the middle of the night before escaping over the
border to the Dominican Republic. Although Toussaint has not been linked to
the coup, other former military officers are believed to have been
"We are at a crossroads where sacrifices have to be made," said Sen.
Prince, the only senior Family Lavalas member to openly support lifting
He worries that the Dominique murder is eroding the party's popular
support. "Aristide has to do something. But he moves very slowly."
Meanwhile, Montas continues to run the radio station from Dominique's
In honor of her husband she has kept his desk unaltered, complete with
pipe rack. Dominique remains a strong presence at the station.
In a taped announcement, his voice can be heard announcing the morning
news the way he always did: "It's seven o'clock. To everyone I say good
Sitting in the studio, Montas replies "Bonjour, Jean."
In the station entrance a few feet from where he was gunned down, a
large poster of Dominique's face announces in Creole: "Jean Dominique may
have fallen but the fight goes on."