By Chiara Liguori, Amnesty International’s delegate in Haiti.
Today is a day of remembrance for Haitians everywhere.
On 26 April 1963, after a failed attempt to kidnap the then President François Duvalier’s two children, a radio appeal called on the dictator’s militia to go after the alleged conspirators.
What followed was nothing short of horror.
Entire families were exterminated, and even people who randomly happened to get in the way of the militia were killed or disappeared.
The events of that dark day were typical of the 29 years that François Duvalier and his son Jean Claude were in power in Haiti.
No one has been brought to justice for those crimes, despite the many attempts by survivors and relatives of victims.
50 years on, justice seems to be moving too slowly in the Caribbean country.
At the end of January, the Haitian Court of Appeal started examining an appeal – brought by victims of human rights violations – against an earlier decision by an investigative judge not to put Jean Claude Duvalier on trial for crimes against humanity.
Yesterday, the ninth hearing of this case was supposed to be held.
We were preparing to attend it, as we are in Port-au-Prince for the publication of a new report on forced evictions from displacement camps. However, when we reached the tribunal we were informed that the hearing had just been cancelled, as one of the judges needed to attend a funeral.
Since 4 March, the Court has been hearing the victims. Only five of the 20-plus complainants have been heard. Duvalier has not appeared, giving excuses for health reasons, and is represented by his lawyers.
In fact, Duvalier has been evading the courts for some time.
Last time he appeared in court was last February, after the Court of Appeal issued a formal summons, when he denied all implications in the crimes and stated he did his best to ensure that all “anomalies” were punished.
Almost every Thursday since January, the victims and their lawyers carry out their fight for justice and reparation. They suffer from the slowness and the shortcomings of the justice system and face the disdain of Duvalier’s lawyers, who refuse to recognise them as civil parties in the proceedings and portray them as subversive disruptors.
They also feel abandoned by the state.
The Public Prosecutor, instead of fulfilling her role of defending the public interest, has aligned with the defence and does not miss any opportunity to dismiss the complainants’ arguments.
The current administration, several members of which reportedly held positions of power in Jean-Claude Duvalier’s government, has shown no interest in bringing Duvalier to justice. On the contrary, it has granted him a diplomatic passport.
Even though the judicial complexities and political complications make the road to justice appear extremely long, the victims, their lawyers and Amnesty International will not give up. We all know it is worth fighting for. It is not only their personal fight; it’s also a national struggle against denial.
Since Jean Claude Duvalier came back to Haiti on 16 January 2011, after 25 years in exile, his supporters have used all possible means to rehabilitate his image and that of his father Francois, who ruled the country as a dictator for 14 years.
On 19 April, François Duvalier’ grandchild published a homage to his grandfather in the country’s main newspaper, calling him an “eminent political man… who defended republican values throughout his entire life”.
While he is entitled to his opinions as a family member, his statement is a slap on the face of the thousands of victims of his regime.
By commemorating for the first time the terrible events of 26 April 1963, today Haitians are saying no to dictatorship, human rights violations and impunity. They are calling on their leaders – and the world – to remember and to act.