Fighting for the Rule of Law in Haiti
April 25, 2007
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Mario Joseph, director of the Bureau des avocats internationaux (BAI). The BAI is one of the few Haitian legal organizations working to redress the crimes of the coup d'États of 1991 and 2004 which saw an estimated 20,000 Haitians murdered, thousands more illegally detained, and tens of thousands of Haitian women raped. Mr. Joseph insists that the guilty must be held accountable for their actions, including members of the American, Canadian and French governments. Photos: ©2007 Darren Ell

Fighting for the Rule of Law in Haiti

An exclusive Haiti Information Project interview with
Haiti's leading human rights lawyer, Mario Joseph

by Darren Ell

Mario Joseph became a human rights lawyer in the wake of Haiti's 1991 coup d'État, helping victims prepare their cases and articulate their demands at a time when human rights law was not even taught in law school. In 1995, he joined the Bureau des avocats internationaux (BAI) which seeks to defend the poorest members of Haitian society. He is outraged by the hypocrisy of the Canadian, American and French Governments who were behind the 2004 coup d'État; but he is determined to bring to justice all those who attempted to destroy Haiti's young democracy and who continue to violate the rule of law today. He spoke to Darren Ell from the offices of the BAI in Port-au-Prince.

Darren Ell: Help us understand the roots of human rights abuses in Haiti. First of all, does Haiti have the same human rights jurisprudence as Canada or the US?

Mario Joseph: There are small differences, but Haitian law is drawn from the same European system as other countries. Our legal codes are more or less copied from the Napoleanic codes. Unfortunately in Haiti we haven't been prolific with legislation.

DE: So the laws exist, but they're often not applied.

MJ: Exactly. For example, currently in Haiti there's a debate over amending the Constitution. Why on earth are we discussing amending a constitution that is not even being applied ? Let's apply it first to find out if amendments are required. There's also another problem: justice exists only for people who can afford it. The great majority of human rights victims are poor but they can't afford a lawyer. We're talking about 32 coup d'États in our history which have involved massive human rights violations. If you go into a Haitian jail today, you will see that everyone is poor. It's people who stole a banana or committed some other crime, and they'll spend their whole life in jail. For the middle class and the rich, it's a different story : they have access to lawyers and things work out for them.

And in Haiti there is no real legal aid. Because of the poverty in Haiti, we have few lawyers. Few people have the opportunity to complete their studies. The Bureau des avocats internationaux is the only group in Haiti working in a formal way on human rights cases.

DE: In a country of 8 million people where tens of thousands of murders and rapes have been committed in the last several years ?

MJ: There is no other group. There is no one else here working for the poor of Cité Soleil, Raboteau or elsewhere. This is why we have such a problem with impunity in Haiti.

DE: Can you put this problem of the non-application of law into a historical perspective for us ?

MJ: Foreigners have always come to Haiti as saviors ; even Christopher Columbus tried to convert everyone to Christianity. Once here, foreign powers establish local allies, then begin changing and manipulating the legal system to suit their needs. To oppress the population, methods are put in place so the law doesn't have to be respected. Look at the last coup d'État : the first thing Latortue did was undermine the tribunals and put pressure on the judicial system. Father Jean-Juste was arrested in October 2004. He was arrested for murder. There was no police report. No one knew the name of the person he supposedly killed. There was nothing ! The case came before the judge and he courageously freed Father Jean-Juste one month later. Subsequently, the Justice Minister, Bernard Gousse, ordered that this judge's cases be given to other people. In Haiti, we have judges with expensive cars and fancy jeeps, but there are others with nothing because they refuse to sell out.

DE: It sounds like the era of Louis XIV in France where all that was required was for the King to issue a "lettre de cachet" announcing you were arrested and that was it.

MJ: During the coup, people were arrested like this all the time — without warrants or with illegal or expired warrants. Yvon Neptune, the Prime Minister, was arrrested without a warrant. It's awful ! Moreover, the justice system was used to legitimate these illegal procedures. All these people — Father Jean-Juste, Bob Molière, Jean-Marie Samedi — were run through the Prosecutor's Office. In Haiti though, the Prosecutor's Office is simply a rubber-stamping stopover on the way to prison. In the case of Father Jean-Juste, I got a call saying he was before the Prosecutor in Pétionville. I live nearby, but by the time I got there, he was already in prison.

That's the situation we're up against. The laws exist, but the justice system is completely muzzled. Judges who disobey the government are fired whereas the government — the executive branch — is supposed to ensure the correct application of the law ! Don't forget that in December 2005, the interim President, Alexandre Boniface, dismissed five Supreme Court justices. This is completely illegal! Then they were replaced without following constitutional procedures. New judges were simply appointed and the current government has done nothing to change the situation.

DE: All these people are still in place ?

MJ: Yes. The Latortue regime fired over 300 judges and police chiefs. The first thing Latortue did was get rid of people who supported or who were appointed by Aristide. A lot of pressure was put on others. Since I worked on cases for Lavalas supporters, I was called the " rat's lawyer [the " chimères' lawyer ]. They couldn't fire me or erase my knowledge, so they used psychological pressure.

DE: During the time of Aristide, did judges obtain their positions legally ?

MJ: Yes and no. The constitution was only being partially applied. There is a constitutional procedure for the nomination of judges requiring the consent of assemblies in different departments throughout the country. This wasn't being respected. The Minister of justice was making recommendations and Aristide was granting commissions to judges. This is not a secure way of putting judges in place. I criticized it myself. I told Aristide to find a better way. If the President has the power to put judges in place, these judges will do his bidding in order to protect their positions. This is not healthy for a democracy. We must respect the constitution : the population must participate in the nomination of judges. I support the election of judges.

DE: And with the Latortue regime, these questionable practices worsened.

MJ: The Latortue regime turned the world upside down. Justice and the rule of law were thrown out the window. It was a dictatorship. And don't forget: the 'civil society' groups and the upper classes were constantly demanding 'justice' during Aristide's term, calling him a predator, accusing him of all sorts of human rights violations. Then they got into power and they carried out the most unimaginable acts! The coup d'État created a huge mess and now we have to work twice as hard to make up for lost time. The problem of the non-application of law is still with us. Presently, there are no trials. Over 1,000 people have been arrested in recent months, but the justice system is incapable of carrying out a trial. All sorts of cases are pending.

DE: When a country goes through 32 coup d'États in 200 years, does a tradition of non-respect for law develop among those that are supposed to apply the law.

MJ: Definitely. People in power are lax in their application of the law. Few people in government respect the judiciary. They look down on it. The judicial branch of government is used to launch political careers and legitimate power. They know the system is weak, that if they commit a crime they can avoid prosecution. And in the end, it's the population that suffers.

The poor majority of Haiti see things very differently than the elites. Take the 2004 coup d'État as an example. The people were demanding that Aristide's mandate and the constitution be respected. The upper classes were demanding Aristide's departure. That's the problem. The illiterate population of Haiti — the 'rabble' — were calling for law and democracy whereas the others were calling for anarchy!

People in power have traditionally had little respect for justice in Haiti. Even today the executive is calling for changes to the Constitution while the population is demanding that they simply apply the existing Constitution ! If you read the Haitian Constitution, you will see it is very progressive and socialist. It takes into consideration all major UN and OAS human rights treaties and conventions. But what do we have now ? We have a battle over the 48 hour rule. This is the rule by which anyone arrested must be charged or appear before a judge within 48 hours to establish probable cause. It doesn't take a genius to understand why this is a good rule! Why on earth would it even be debated ? Only dictatorships would consider not respecting such a rule ! Those in power right now are upset that this regulation is in the constitution. They want to change the constitution so they can find a way to keep their political enemies in prison.

A resident of Cité Soleil who declined to give his name, condemns the MINUSTAH killing of four women in the Bwa Neuf market in January 2006. Mario Joseph is in possession of 22 death certificates from a more recent MINUSTAH killing of civilians on December 22nd, 2007. According to the agreement signed between MINUSTAH and the Latortue regime, MINUSTAH has legal immunity for such crimes, leaving victims with no recourse for justice.
Madame Amanus Mayette has been fighting for the release of her husband, former Parliamentarian Amanus Mayette, since his arrest three years ago. The BAI is currently working with 116 documented political prisoners in Haitian jails, all members of the Fanmi Lavalas Party, imprisoned by the Latortue Regime. The list is partial, the actual number being much higher. Mr. Mayette was accused of murder in the massacre of "La Scierie," a fictive event created by the NCHR, a Canadian-funded organization.
DE: Let's talk about a legal problem very important to Haiti : the violation of human rights law, the kinds of crimes that take the justice system beyond common criminal law.

MJ: This is a very troubling issue for Haitians. Take MINUSTAH for example. I don't even know where to begin ! I have in my hands the text of the agreement signed in April 2004 between MINUSTAH and the Government of Haiti. It gives complete immunity to MINUSTAH. I'm currently working on the case of July 2005 massacre in Cité Soleil. MINUSTAH still hasn't looked into the case. Not only that, but neither the victims nor BAI can file a case against MINUSTAH because they're immune.

DE: So what do you do ?

MJ: That's the problem. MINUSTAH cannot be legally brought before the Haitian courts. So what are we supposed to do ? What procedure do we use ? I've prepared the July 2005 cases but nothing has been done because MINUSTAH can't be judge and accused at the same time. WIth these immunity agreements, MINUSTAH is playing both roles: judge and accused.

DE: It sounds very confusing. Even you, perhaps the most articulate person in Haiti on this matter, you're having difficulty knowing what to do.

MJ: Exactly. Take the example of Jimmy Charles, arrested without a warrant by Brazilian UN troops, turned over to the police, only to end up riddled with bulletholes. What happened next ? MINUSTAH did the inquiry. This is why the inquiries are tainted. It's as though the Haitian State no longer existed. The authority of MINUSTAH, Canada, France and the US has created a situation where the State has lost all of its authority.

In other human rights cases, it's also difficult because the justice system is unaffordable for the poor of Haiti. If you're rich or important and your rights aren't respected, there is justice. Conversely, if you're powerful and you abuse human rights , you can find ways to avoid the consequences of your actions. But in the Bureau des avocats internationaux, we're calling people to account. We're busy and we have many victims who pay us nothing, but we're moving ahead. We are going to call Gérard Latortue to account, as well as the CSPN (The Higher Council of the National Police) and the Police itself.

DE: Are the recent prosecutions of Toto Constant and Carl Dorelien important for your work?

MJ: Very important. Moreover, in the past people were terrified of speaking out. That fear is disappearing. People here are demanding that dictators, human rights abuses, killers and rapists be called to account. We must do it. Just watch. I guarantee it: Gérard Latortue and his henchmen will face justice for what they did while in power. We are preparing all the cases.

DE: Your strategy is to push the system.

MJ: Exactly. And we've got to pressure the Government of Haiti as well. For example, according to the top UN representative in Haiti and head of MINUSTAH, Edmond Mulet, MINUSTAH had Préval's blessing when it carried out the December 22nd massacre. That being the case, we are preparing a case against the Government of Haiti. Even if the State didn't give the order, they have done nothing to correct the situation or to investigate these crimes. The potential presence of criminals in a neighborhood does not give MINUSTAH a green light to open fire on civilians! The Government will be pursued for crimes against humanity if indeed they gave the order.

DE: What about the scale and nature of the crimes of the coup period? You have crimes committed by foreign governments, foreign troops and local actors on a scale difficult for any legal system to deal with. How do you proceed?

MJ: We're looking at strategies used after the tragedies of Rwanda, Yougoslavia and elsewhere. This is why we're building every case now. We're going to make noise, solicit the consience of the international community. We'll set up tribunals to judge the perpetrators of the crimes of the coup of 2004. It's a huge undertaking. We have many powerful enemies such as the Canadian, French and American Governments who don't want their citizens or their ministers and officials condemned. But we're counting on our friends.

DE: What cases are you are working on presently?

MJ: We're working with political prisoners right now. We're at the appeal stage with René Civil, Amanus Mayette and Father Gérard Jean-Juste. With many others, we've just opened the cases. We're petitioning the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the OAS in the case of former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. We're also following the murder cases of activist Jimmy Charles and journalist Abdias Jean, both killed by the Latortue regime.

DE: So your work now is heavily concentrated on the consequences of February 29th, 2004.

MJ: Absolutely. The coup brought with it huge numbers of murders and rapes. If The Lancet cited 8,000 murders in Port-au-Prince between 2004 and 2006, we have to double this number to reflect what happened throughout the country. Rape itself was used as a political weapon. When husbands are displaced or in hiding, women are vulnerable. Aside from raping women, the henchmen ordered children to have sex with their mothers or sisters. These were serious crimes.

Then there's the political prisoners. We've worked for over 200 already who've been locked up for their political affiliation, for refusing to accept the coup d'État and for demanding a return to democracy. There's also the case of La Scierie. The Canadian Government funded the NCHR — now the RNDDH — to prepare the cases of La Scierie, a case which led to the imprisonment of Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, Minister Privert and deputy Amanus Mayette. Mr. Mayette has been jailed for three years without charge!

DE: They're still paying the price for this fabrication.

MJ: To this day. It is incredible that so-called democratic and civilized countries like Canada, France and the US would participate in the disinformation campaign that led to the kidnapping of Aristide.

DE: Countries which subsequently said nothing during two years of massive crimes. Before the coup, Aristide is called a dictator. Then a real dictator is installed, his people kill and rape thousands, and no one says anything.

MJ: And the hypocrisy! For example, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay, criticized Haiti for the imprisonment of Yvon Neptune after Latortue left power, but said absolutely nothing before, not even during Neptune's near-fatal hunger strike. It's pure hypocrisy! I don't understand how a globalized world can function with such hypocrites in power. These crimes would never be tolerated in Canada, France or the US, so why are these governments allowed to commit them in Haiti? They continue their dirty work in Haiti today by saying nothing about political prisoners or the summary killings in Cité Soleil by the UN forces (MINUSTAH).

DE: I've been to Cité Soleil four times in the last few weeks during which time MINUSTAH has arrested 70 people, calling them "criminals" and "gang members." We talked to people who said their neighbors and family members were being arbitrarily arrested, that they were never involvement in crime at all. I haven't found any journalists asking MINUSTAH officials about the nature of these mass arrests.

MJ: The media says nothing. They're giving MINUSTAH the freedom they need to arrest arbitrarily without warrants, to kill and rape, to do what they want. Take the case of Jimmy Charles, who was arrested by MINUSTAH and later riddled with bullets. We found him like that at the General Hospital. This has been happening since Aristide was kidnapped. In Cité Soleil today, MINUSTAH is violating human rights. They're killng people. They decide who lives and dies. The government, the media and even the International Community act as if this is normal, as if these people should be punished. Take for example the case of the massacre of December 22, 2006 carried out by MINUSTAH.

DE: You're working on this case right now?

MJ: Yes. I have 22 death certificates in my possession. It's a complicated case because the Latortue Government signed immunity agreements with the UN. I thought Préval would change the situation, but he hasn't. The question is this: with such a free hand given to MINUSTAH, what role does the State play after a massacre like this? We've got people with bulletholes all over their bodies but no journalists going down to find out how it happened.

DE: But we'll see this type of coverage on a website like

MJ: Yes, and sites like IJDH, thanks to people like Wadner Pierre, Lovinsky Pierre Antoine, Kevin Pina and others. But that's it. Even human rights organizations aren't interested.

DE: I try to imagine a crime like this in Canada. It would be on the front pages for weeks.

MJ: Absolutely. We've got unarmed innocent people, young children, being shot to death.

DE: It seems as though the only reason given for these massive assaults on unarmed people is that "criminals" or "bandits" " or "gang members" are present in the community.

MJ: Since the coup d'État, these terms are used as if they represented specific crimes. They are used to justify killing. Even if there are slight differences between Haitian law and Canadian or American law, our legal systems share all the same principles. You're innocent until proven guilty. If a verdict hasn't been declared, you cannot be treated like a criminal. Criminals must be arrested, judged and sentenced. Since the kidnapping of Aristide, the process of legal accusation has been reduced to name calling: the word "chimère" is used like a death sentence. This is how all the political prisoners, members of Lavalas, were rounded up during the coup. Their names were announced on the radio! If your name was on the radio, you had to hide right away. This is no way to carry out an arrest warrant ! If a judge issues a warrant, it must be kept secret, not announced on the radio ! This is how Prime Minister Neptune was arrested. In his case, he knew he had done nothing wrong. He called the Police Chief and said, "If you have a warrant, here I am." It was the same for Amanus Mayette.

Today the situation has changed. Now they're looking for 'bandits', the pretext used for the December 22nd massacre, and everyone is looking the other way. It's as though the US and Canadian Embassies no longer existed, as though the International Community was no longer in Haiti. When Aristide was in power, these groups did nothing but condemn human rights violations. Now, one would think these violations had ceased. And what about inquiries ? The question of excessive force is not even raised concerning MINUSTAH.

DE: The problem is also that people outside of Haiti trying to understand these matters are at the mercy of the mainstream media who are scooping up MINUSTAH's press releases and the UN News Service articles.

MJ: I was recently in Miami and I read the smear campaign against Amaral. These propaganda campaigns are directed against Haiti in general. When they show MINUSTAH giving food to people in Cité Soleil — just as Brazilian troops did in their own country — it is done to hide the fact that they're killing people, to hide the reality of the military occupation.

DE: We've seen it recently in Cité Soleil. They carry out mass arrests for days, then come in with water bottles, doctors and dentists.

MJ: And journalists and photographers. This is a conspiracy. It's not a new conspiracy. It goes back to 1804, the year of our independence. No one wanted Haiti to give a lesson to the world. Bush talks about freedom and liberty, but Haiti is the mother of liberty. We even helped Miranda and Bolivar achieve independence for Venezuela. The conspiracy includes the way Haiti is presented to the world : images of misery only, never images from Pétionville where people are better off. This tells the world that Haiti should be placed in quarantine. This conspiracy continues today with the consent of the Haitian Government who are for the most part brokers for foreign governments.

DE: There are many activists and supporters in the US and Canada who want to see an end to this conspiracy. Do you have any specific messages for them?

MJ: I have been able to advance in my work thanks to these people, people like you who come here looking to gather and spread good information. Ours is a battle of information. The entire kidnapping of Aristide was pulled off because of a battle of information. Progressives and activists must keep their eyes wide open. Our enemies are still there. There is an enormous amount of lying and propaganda. Foreigners have to read our media very scrupulously because the society is very polarized. The perspective of the poor majority is absent from the media. Even here in Haiti, I know people who consider themselves democrats, socialists, progressives, and they were completely duped by the media. They bought the lie about Aristide. Independent media is very important. It was crucial in helping us tell the world the truth about Haiti. It allowed American and Canadian activists to pressure their governments so that the situation could improve.

It is crucial to sensitize your populations to the real situation in Haiti. My colleague Brian Concannon moved back to the US after the 2004 coup d'État. After 9 years in Haiti, he realized that crucial work had to be done in the US, telling people the incredible damage the coup d'État did to our young democracy. I encourage people to come to Haiti. Even a few weeks can affect people strongly. I always make myself available for people. I put them in contact with progressive individuals and organizations. I've met many progressive people at the World Social Forum in Brazil and Venezuela, people who openly criticize their own governments, people like Anthony Fenton and Yves Engler in your country, Canada.

The struggle for democracy isn't over at all. People voted for Préval in 2006 but he is more interested in talking with imperialist powers than fixing internal problems. We still have hundreds of political prisoners. Very little real change has occurred since Latortue left power. Haiti wants to participate in a globalized world, but not with the hypocrites who have been undermining our democracy. We are looking for people to help us construct democracy and the rule of law, not the contrary.

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Reverend Father Gerard Jean-Juste

many past articles, photos and links of our beloved Pér Jean-Juste compiled on one page