“Guilty for Prison Massacre in Rare Trial of Haiti’s Police
The two reporters here are the New York Times reporters who broke the original story of the Les Cayes prison massacre to the world in The New York Times, ultimately frustrating the efforts by officials of the previous Preval government and the United Nations to cover up the massacre.
By Deborah Sontag and Walt Bogdanich, New York Times, January 19, 2012
In a country where officials who abuse their power are almost never held accountable, 8 of 14 police officers tried for a 2010 prison massacre were found guilty on Thursday in the southern city of Les Cayes, Haiti.
On the second anniversary of the massacre, Judge Ezekiel Vaval handed down sentences ranging from 2 to 13 years of imprisonment and hard labor. The stiffest sentences were given to the highest-ranking officials, the former Les Cayes prison warden, Sylvestre Larack, and the city’s riot police chief, Olritch Beaubrun, who was tried in absentia.
Judge Vaval, who received frequent death threats during the three-month trial and traveled to New York over the holidays to write his decision free from pressure, delivered his verdicts to an initially hushed crowd of hundreds packing the courtroom. He spoke rapidly, looking off into the distance, and then rapidly departed as the audience erupted into cheers and jeers. “The decision of the judge is his expression of the truth,” Judge Vaval said. “There are other versions that exist but this is mine. And that is the law.”
While it was a rough-hewn legal proceeding by American standards, the trial, having taken place at all, represents a rare victory for the rule of law in Haiti. Haitian government officials who break the law, be they police officers or presidents, typically elude justice, benefiting from a weak, corrupt judicial system.
“Wow, this is a real landmark moment for Haitian justice,” said William O’Neill, an American human rights lawyer with decades of experience in Haiti. “To get some senior law enforcement officials held accountable with fairly serious sentences — it’s really historic.”
Fourteen officers were charged with murder, attempted murder and other crimes for killing and wounding dozens of detainees in the aftermath of a disturbance on Jan. 19, 2010, a week after the earthquake. The officers opened fire on unarmed inmates “deliberately and without justification,” according to an independent commission. That commission, run jointly by the Haitian government and the United Nations, was appointed after an investigation by The New York Times in May 2010 contradicted the official explanation for the deaths at the prison. Initially, the Haitian government had accepted the local officials’ explanation that a single detainee had killed his fellow inmates before escaping.
Mr. Larack, in fact, was promoted after the massacre to run the largest penitentiary in the country; when the Times reporters tried to speak with him there, he ordered them to destroy videotape of him refusing to answer questions. And Mr. Beaubrun, before leaving the country for what his lawyer said were medical reasons, told the reporters that his riot squad had never fired a shot.
But The Times found that police and prison officers had shot unarmed prisoners, and witnesses at trial said that Mr. Beaubrun himself not only had ordered the shootings but had participated in them. The Times also reported that the police had moved some bodies before outside investigators showed up and had hurriedly buried some victims in unmarked graves.
The joint commission then conducted an investigation — although hindered by the authorities’ initial failures to collect and preserve evidence — and prodded the government to prosecute the offenders.
The prosecutor, Jean-Marie J. Salomon, charged that officers had killed 20 detainees, but the precise number of deaths and injuries is not known. Testifying at the trial, one detainee, Patrick Olcine, said he had been shot in the back but had never gone to the hospital. “They were taking dead people and living people, and they were picking them up together,” he said. “I didn’t want them to pick me up and go bury me.”
By American standards, the trial often had a circuslike atmosphere, with protracted quarrels between screaming lawyers playing to the raucous crowds that daily packed a theater in Les Cayes, Haiti’s third-largest city. Small bottles of rum were on sale at the door, the trial was conducted in semidarkness when fuel for the generator ran out and the judge, lacking a gavel, rang a small bell in an often futile effort to gain control of the courtroom.
Mr. Salomon inherited the case when he was appointed shortly before the trial. He had never tried a case before, and trial observers said he was often outmatched by highly seasoned defense lawyers. The defense maintained that the police were just doing their jobs. “But killing people was not doing their job,” said Florence Elie, Haiti’s ombudsman.
The prosecutor asked the judge to sentence 11 of the defendants, including Mr. Larack, to life in prison and hard labor. But Ms. Elie said that the judge, who acquitted six of the officers, chose an equitable middle ground in his decision. He gave Mr. Larack 7 years and Mr. Beaubrun 13.
“If they were civilians, they would have gotten life,” Ms. Elie said. “But the judge was wise. If he had given the normal sentence, we would have had bigger problems in the long run with our police force.”
Still, Ms. Elie said she was very concerned about reprisals because the witnesses, the judge and the prosecutor had not been given protection, as recommended by the joint commission. The chief witness for the prosecution was threatened repeatedly and finally fled to Port-au-Prince, she said, adding that she had not been able to locate him since.
Many Haitians wonder whether this trial could have a galvanizing effect on their justice system, but they are wary of being hopeful. Far bigger cases lie on the horizon.
Former President Jean-Claude Duvalier, for instance, has supposedly been under investigation since his return from exile a year ago for human rights abuses committed during his 15-year reign. But the investigation appears to have stalled, and the new president, Michel Martelly, has shown no inclination to encourage it. Instead, Mr. Martelly has claimed that nobody in Haiti wants to see Mr. Duvalier prosecuted and that the push to do so comes from “certain institutions and governments” abroad.
Although supposedly confined to his house, Mr. Duvalier has made increasingly frequent excursions, and presided over a promotion ceremony at the Gonaïves law school last month. But on Thursday, a judge summoned Mr. Duvalier to court to explain why he had violated his house arrest.
Andres Martinez Casares contributed reporting from Les Cayes, Haiti.”
(Quelle: Canada Haiti Action Network.)