Posted on Fri, Sep. 30, 2005
Haiti's judicial system in disarray
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
Knight Ridder Newspapers
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - (KRT) - Nearly four weeks after a judge found Maxo Accime not guilty of sexual assault and ordered him freed from jail, he remained locked up.
He was released this week, but only after his family and friends paid a series of ``fees'' to the judge and court secretary to do their jobs. Instead of defending them, two of their previous attorneys tried to cut their own deal with the police and a prosecutor, who demanded $1,500 to execute the release order.
``If you want justice in Haiti you got to ... pay everyone all along the way,'' said Jeff Cazeau, a Miami lawyer who monitored the Haitian system when he served with the Miami-based U.S. Souther
n Command from 1997 to 1999.
The continued jailing of two high-profile supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide - the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune - has shined a harsh spotlight on Haiti's decrepit judicial system.
Haiti's French-based legal system follows a ``Napoleonic'' code in which defendants bear the burden of proving their innocence - the opposite of America's bedrock standard of innocent until proven guilty.
Experts here and abroad say the Haitian system has been crumbling for decades, hamstrung by a labyrinth of antiquated laws and battered by political pressures and corruption.
So slowly do the wheels of justice churn in Haiti that only 274 of the 3,115 prisoners here in August - 8.8 percent - had been convicted, according to Haitian government figures. Many had not been officially charged.
``When we talk about people being in jail a long time without being judged, it's a grave concern,'' said Gervais Charles, p
resident of the Bar Association of Port-au-Prince.
Although prolonged pretrial detention is nothing new here, or in other parts of the hemisphere, the jailings of Neptune and Jean-Juste, a former Miami Haitian rights activist, have brought the issue to the fore.
Neptune was arrested 15 months ago on charges of helping orchestrate the killing of Aristide opponents in the city of St. Marc during the revolt last year that helped toppled Aristide. Jean-Juste, arrested last October and again in July, faces several charges, from inciting violence against the state to complicity in the murder of a prominent Haitian journalist.
Both deny the charges and brand them politically motivated. They accuse the current U.S.-backed interim government of targeting Aristide supporters while allowing anti-Aristide killers to roam the streets.
Haiti observers say that although the interim government of President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has failed to improve the judicial sys
tem and protect human rights, the system is little different from what it was under Aristide. He was repeatedly criticized for using the justice system to punish political enemies and interfering with the judiciary on politically sensitive cases.
``It's pretty much business as usual,'' Cazeau said.
In a blistering report, reminiscent of those it issued during the Aristide years, Amnesty International said in July that the administration of criminal justice in Haiti ``remains highly dysfunctional.''
``Crimes such as unlawful killings, arbitrary and illegal detentions, ill-treatment of prisoners and deaths in custody are still commonplace and remain unpunished,'' the report said.
Although former interim Minister of Justice Bernard Gousse did recommend a handful of judicial reforms - dramatically increasing the pay of judges, making the judiciary financially independent and overhauling the government's training school for judges - they were overshadowed by the arrests of score
s of Aristide supporters. He denied any political bias in his work.
``If someone is breaking the law and he says he is an Aristide supporter, we are not arresting him because he is an Aristide supporter but because he is breaking the law,'' said Gousse, who resigned in June. ``And I am not going after you. The law is going after you.''
Three weeks ago, Gousse's replacement, Henri Dorlean, began holding trials at the country's largest prison in hopes of reducing the backlog and resolving the allegations of politically inspired detentions on thin legal grounds.
But purging the prisons won't fix what is a long-term institutional problem, judicial experts say.
``We don't have the means to do our job,'' said Judge Jean Peres Paul, president of the Judges Association here and the investigative magistrate assigned to the Jean-Juste case. While the judiciary is more independent today than under Aristide, he added, it remains in disarray.
Some investigative magistrates, who
se work is similar to a U.S. grand jury, have up to 350 cases and lack office space, sometimes even typewriters, and certainly decent salaries.
``They dropped a bunch of hot cases in my lap and I don't even have a car to get around,'' said Paul, who makes less than $550 a month. He said such low salaries help breed corruption among judges and prosecutors.
As further evidence of how broken the system is, a former top Haitian National Police commander overseeing five investigative units including drug probes, testified in a Miami federal court last week that he had never taken the witness stand in a Haitian court. In the United States, Drug Enforcement Administration agents and supervisors routinely testify in trial.
Some help is on the way, however, with the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, the U.S., Canadian and French governments each financing judicial reform programs in Haiti.
``There are a lot of challenges,'' said Gerard Fontain, who heads a judicial reform program ba
cked by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Among the most serious, he added, is the inability of most poor Haitians to hire an attorney.
``This is why the rich people in Haiti do not stay in jail. They can hire an attorney and push their cases along and have a rapid trial,'' he said. ``Most people are being forgotten in the courthouse.''
One man in fact spent three years in the National Penitentiary before a group of law interns, providing free legal help as part of a Bar association program, helped free him, said Gervais Charles.
``We found no file,'' said Charles, whose group has helped clear away 150 cases in three months. ``It was after a lot of research, we found the paperwork saying the guy should be freed.''
© 2005, The Miami Herald.
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