Justice is a rare commodity in Haiti


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Three months after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to power promising justice and reconciliation, Haitians are clamoring for his government to begin prosecuting the soldiers, police officers and paramilitary gunmen who killed, robbed and pillaged during three years of military dictatorship.

Father Aristide has been dismantling the repressive military and police apparatus since he returned Oct. 15.

The court and penal system -- universally condemned as corrupt, incompetent and unfair -- has collapsed. Rebuilding it, however, has proved more difficult than anticipated and little progress has been made.

Scores of judges and prosecutors suspected of wrongdoing have abandoned their posts or have been forced to step down, but few replacements have been named.

Judicial reformers must also contend with a cynicism about the law that is deeply ingrained in the Haitians after decades of bitter experience and dozens of military coups.

"Traditionally, people know that when you go to a tribunal you have to buy justice," said Joseph Jonas Pierre-Louis, 31, a justice of the peace who took part in a retraining session last week for justice officials.

"We also know that for people who have bathed in corruption for a long time, it is hard to change."

During the three years Father Aristide was in exile, thousands of people were killed, and thousands more were raped or beaten.

Homes were burned and property was stolen by agents of the military dictatorship.

Because of the paralysis of the judicial system, few cases have been brought to trial. The prisons are full of people who have not been charged with crimes and who are waiting in conditions described as the worst in the Western Hemisphere for their cases to be heard. Many of the people considered to be the most notorious human rights abusers remain free.

"Every time I cross paths with these guys, I feel like I have been stabbed in the gut," said Lessage Dimanche, a student whose father was kidnapped by a government death squad in 1993 and never seen again.

The Aristide government has compiled dossiers on many of the worst offenders and would like to bring them to justice. But many of the judges who would handle such cases were appointed by the military dictatorship or have long records of corruption.

Under the Constitution, their replacements can be chosen only by local assemblies that will not be elected until spring.

Most Haitians have heeded Father Aristide's repeated calls to be patient and to let justice take its course. But as inaction continues without signs of improvement, there are indications that they may not be willing to wait much longer.

"Growing frustration is being expressed at the inability or unwillingness of the system to prosecute human rights offenders or common criminals," warned a United Nations report published last week in advance of the scheduled withdrawal of a U.S.-led military force by March 31 and its replacement by U.N. peacekeepers.

"This could spark a wave of retribution and vengeance by the victims of past and present violence."

What few efforts the government has made to hold the most notorious human rights abusers accountable for their actions have been thwarted. When Emmanuel Constant and Jodel Chamblain, heads of the paramilitary group known as FRAPH, were summoned to appear before an investigating magistrate last month, they simply ignored the order and went underground.

In an effort to restore public confidence, the Aristide government last week began what it calls a "recycling program" for judges and prosecutors.

In the weeks to come, several hundred are scheduled to take the five-day course, conducted with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Professional Development and Training and the National Center for State Courts.

Carl Alexander, a Haitian-American lawyer who is a member of the U.S. delegation, described the course as "a total re-education process" for legal officials.

He said "the primary goal is to instill confidence there is a new order and that they ought to play their role in an honest and professional way," but he acknowledged that the program is "only a first step" that must be accompanied by other actions in order to succeed.

In his opening remarks to 18 auxiliary justices of the peace chosen for the program, Jean-Claude Banica, the Aristide government's solicitor general, described a bleak situation in which "the credibility of the judge has been lost."

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