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-
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,
Anne-Christine D'Adesky is a
freelance writer who specializes in Haiti
and human rights.
7critics felt Aristide was strengthening
his already cult-like status to the point
where dissent and free speech were
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
Aristide campaigns in Cap-Haitien
in late 1990. Once elected, he
declared "a new marriage" between
the army and the Haitian people.
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-
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-
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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