ATLANTA, Georgia – Haiti’s infamous former President, Jean-Claude Duvalier, otherwise known as “Baby Doc,” is currently under trial for massive human rights abuses committed during his 15 years as President. However, politicians – unable or unwilling to truly prosecute Duvalier – combined with multiple court delays, leaves many doubting the former dictator will ever be brought to justice.
President Duvalier inherited the “President for life” title from his father in 1971. He was just 19 years old at the time he assumed power.
Throughout his 15 year presidency, the people of Haiti lived in fear of his roving militia titled the Tonton Macoutes. The militia was notoriously involved in numerous kidnappings and killings. Thousands were taken to a network of prisons carrying the moniker “Triangle of Death.” It is here where many prisoners died of abuse and extrajudicial killings.
It is also alleged that over the course of his presidency, President Duvalier embezzled funds ranging between $300 and $800 million.
Finally, in 1986 a popular revolt forced President Duvalier into exile. He spent the next 25 years in France until his return to Haiti 2011. It has taken 25 years for Duvalier to be put to the stand for his crimes. Unfortunately, the court proceedings have been mired by Duvalier’s arrogance.
He skipped three scheduled hearings until Judge Jean-Joseph Lebrun issued a warrant demanding he attend. His lawyer team even argued that his presence was not a necessary component of the trial. President Duvalier conceded, eventually finding himself sitting in front a panel of three judges all of whom were aggressive in their questioning.
Duvalier provided nonchalant and evasive answers regarding the human rights abuses during his presidency. He argued that officials within his government operated with their own authority without his involvement. But, soon after his return to Haiti in 2011, President Duvalier publicly apologized to those who have suffered under his rule.
The strong possibility of President Duvalier walking away from the case unscathed is a stinging reminder of the inequality prevalent in Haitian society.
The country relies on an antiquated penal code that has not been updated since 1835. There is also a built in bias in favor of the wealthy in the lawyer profession. Many lawyers are simply too expensive for any of the poor to use and most of their training encourages preferential treatment toward the wealthy.
Also court proceedings are conducted in French, which the vast majority of Haitians simply do not speak.
The systemic corruption and the lack of will to better its situation have lead organizations such as the International Crisis group to state that Haiti is in danger of becoming a failed state.
It is unclear whether former President Duvalier will ever be brought to justice, but for the people of Haiti, the true specter haunting their society is that of poorly developed social institutions and contracts that restrict the freedoms of many while letting a small minority escape unscathed.
– Zack Lindberg