Père Lebrun in Context

September 25, 2007

The September military coup d'etat that overthrew Haitian president Jean- Bertrand Aristide shone a new spotlight on the issue of justice and human rights in Haiti. Aristide's great popularity stemmed from his outspoken commit- ment to human rights and to ending Haiti's legacy of dictatorship. Now, in the aftermath of the coup, critics have accused Aristide of failing to uphold these very principles. Aristide's detractors charge that he supported mob lynchings, or "popular justice," whose grisly symbol is "Pbre Lebrun," a gasoline-soaked tire that is "necklaced" around a victim and set on fire. Pare Lebrun (the name comes from a local tire dealer) was used by angry crowds against known or suspected Duvalieristes after the fall of the dicta- torship in 1986. During a failed coup attempt led by Duvalier's former inte- rior minister and Tontons Macoutes chief Roger Lafontant on January 7, a month before Aristide's inauguration, crowds again used tires and gasoline to stop the coup from succeeding. "You have to see Pbre Lebrun in the actual context of the country," explained former soldier Patrick Bochard before the coup. "If the Haitian people hadn't fought back, Aristide wouldn't be in office, and we would still have a dicta- torship." In a July interview, Aristide claimed that "without a system of justice that is not corrupt, the people must remain vigilant." He was careful to talk about Pbre Lebrun as a means of assuring respect for the constitution, which he called "our only guide to justice." Ac- cording to a post-coup survey of Ptre Lebrun incidents by the New York- based National Coalition for Haitian Refugees (NCHR), 25 people were killed in mob lynchings during the seven months of Aristide's tenure. In an impromptu September 27 speech to supporters gathered in front of the national palace that has been widely disseminated in the international press since the coup, Aristide appeared to condone, and perhaps even encour- age, the practice of Pare Lebrun. Using strong language, Aristide told the upper class they must invest in Haiti and give food and jobs to the poor. He exhorted the poor and unemployed to "turn your eyes in the direction of those with the means." And in an indirect reference to Ptre Lebrun, he said: "Your tool in hand, your instrument in hand, your constitution in hand. Don't hesitate to give him what he deserves." In this speech as in prior ones, Aristide specifically named the Tontons Macoutes as legitimate targets of popu- lar vigilance. But in a subtle shift, he added to the list of fair targets the vague term "false Lavalassien," which may have been interpreted as "a non-Aristide supporter." (Lavalas is Aristide's po- litical organization.). Many, including the country's eco- nomic elite and opposition political par- ties, complained the president was in- citing the poor to attack the rich. They also felt Aristide, contrary to his call for national unity, was emphasizing the gap between the two classes. Finally, VOLUME XXV. NUMBER 3 (DECEMBER 1991) Anne-Christine D'Adesky is a freelance writer who specializes in Haiti and human rights. I 7critics felt Aristide was strengthening his already cult-like status to the point where dissent and free speech were threatened. An Error in Judgement "There is no excuse or justification for the army coup," said Jean-Claude Bajeux, a human rights advocate and member of the Konakom opposition party, as the coup unfolded. But, he added, "mistakes were made by Aristide and his entourage. By refusing to con- demn PNre Lebrun, he is seen as tolerat- ing this kind of violence." "He should have spoken out," ad- mitted a close aide to the deposed presi- dent, who requested anonymity. "You have to understand that the climate was hostile, there were constant threats. But that does not excuse what I consider an error of judgement. He is not respon- sible forthe violence, but neither should he give the impression of having ac- cepted or supported it." Under pressure since the coup, Aristide recently clarified his position on PNre Lebrun, condemning the vio- lence and again stressing his support for the constitution. But his tacit accep- tance of lynching as a political tool and his failure to speak out earlier have lost him the unqualified faith of some and planted a damaging seed of doubt in many. Aristide campaigns in Cap-Haitien in late 1990. Once elected, he declared "a new marriage" between the army and the Haitian people. 'IF This mixed record ought to be re- viewed in the context of Aristide's ef- forts at reform. In his electoral cam- paign a year ago, Aristide made it clear that justice would be a priority for his administration. At the top of his agenda was the immediate need to curb the threat of a coup and to reduce everyday street violence by armed gangs. Aristide planned to initiate vast reforms in the army, police, judiciary, and state-run industries, among them to separate the army from the police, a goal set forth in the 1987 constitution. This was viewed as part of a longer term effort to demili- tarize Haiti and create a new role for the country's uniformed men-and, for the first time, women. "The idea is to re-train the army and the police. Why does Haiti need such a big army?" asked constitution author Dr. Louis Roy in February. "We need the army and police for ports, customs and border control. We need to put these people to work rebuilding the country, like a civil police." Aristide also sought to purge the army of former Duvalieristes. In his inaugural speech, Aristide replaced six of the seven members of the powerful army high command, considered "the old guard." He declared "a new mar- riage" between the army and the Hai- tian people, and courted the army rank and file by allotting $6 million to im- prove working conditions for soldiers. That same day, he forbade over 150 members of the previous Trouillot re- gime to leave the country, pending an audit of the state's accounts. The order was eventually dropped, but not before alarming the military and political es- tablishment long accustomed to cor- ruption and patronage. In a more symbolic effort on Febru- ary 8, Aristide presided over a moving ceremony for Duvalier's victims at the notorious Ft. Dimanche military prison. Later he appointed a cabinet-level com- mission, followed by an independent one, to review human rights abuses committed during the 1957-1990 pe- riod, with an eye toward prosecution. Under the constitution, Aristide was legally entitled to a six-month "grace period" during which he could make major reforms without the approval of the legislature. Duly empowered, he arrested a dozen top officers linked to Duvalier, including the powerful ex- REPORT ON THE AMERICAS o EL police chief, Isidor Pongnon. He also re-hired pro-democratic soldiers who had been fired under previous regimes. In another blow to army power, Aristide put the country's 555 section chiefs, or rural sheriffs, under the juris- diction of the Justice Ministry, not the military, and ordered them to turn in their weapons. But in the absence of a functioning legal system, the move backfired in some areas. Residents com- plained that the unarmed sheriffs were unwilling to intervene to stop violent disputes. Others hung onto their weap- ons and remained in the pay of local landowners, firing on peasant groups during land disputes. These reforms would lead nowhere unless the justice system was able to enforce them. Aristide replaced four Supreme Court justices considered "compromised," and initiated a similar clean-up of judges in the countryside. In an effort to educate public officials about the constitution and human rights issues, the president planned to open a magistrate's school for judges and a police academy in 1992. Aristide has been criticized for his handling of the Justice Ministry. His minister, Baynard Vincent, resigned in May after being indirectly implicated in a scandal. His replacement, Karl Auguste, was unable to organize effec- tively the government's case against several Duvalieristes accused of plot- ting against the state. A Macoute Trial The most important of these was the July27 trial ofex-Macoute leaderRoger Lafontant, jailed after his failed coup attempt in January. Though Lafontant was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor, the marathon 21-hour trial seemed more a political event than ajudicial procedure. Aristide supporters kept a 24-hour vigil outside and following the announcement of the verdict, Aristide declared a national holiday, thanking his supporters for assuring "that the Macoute trial went ahead without problems." "There was no trial. There was a travesty of justice," said Jean-Jacques Honorat, a lawyer and head of the CHADEL human rights organization at the time. Honorat, a strong Aristide critic who later became prime ministerof the post-coup government, com- plained about the unwillingness of lo- cal lawyers to defend Lafontant. "'They are afraid of reprisals by Aristide's people," he said. "They are afraid of being lynched and for good reason." On August 13, some 2,000 Aristide supporters threatened legislators inside the National Assembly in an attempt to stop a motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Rene Preval. Later that week, Aristide supporters burned the headquarters of the CATH labor union to protest an anti-Aristide campaign by CATH organizer Jean-Auguste Mes- yeux. Summing up public opinion prior to the coup, left opposition leader Bajeux said: "There's a mounting frustration in the Parliament with Aristide and a fear among the elite. Aristide is doing noth- ing to change that." "Aristide started to become presi- dent for seventy percent of the people and wanted to forget the other thirty percent," said a top aide looking back over events. "After a while, they re- belled." Ironically, opponents have pounced on Aristide' s mixed human rights record to justify a coup that has led to an escalation of human rights abuse. The army massacred and wounded hundreds of civilians during and after the coup. Dozens of Aristide officials and sup- porters are in jail; many have been tortured. The right to public assembly is gone, along with free speech and a free press. Soldiers have also looted busi- nesses, extorted money from civilians, and pillaged private homes. The army used Aristide's Phre Lebrun threat as a justification for sev- eral raids on poor neighborhoods where support for Aristide and resistance to the coup are strongest. Many poor youths from the Cite Soleil and Carre- four districts of Port-au-Prince are still reported missing. Others have been ar- rested without charges or evidence on the grounds of plotting Phre Lebrun- type actions. Slum residents who fled the cities in terror remain in the coun- tryside, while those unable to leave fear for their lives. "Who are the real perpetrators of the terror? Who are the real criminals?" asked Antoine B. from Cit6 Soleil. "It is the army and the bourgeoisie. They are trying to blame Aristide but they are the ones coming to kill us."

Tags: Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, coup, human rights, lynchings

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