Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — On April 3, 2000, a killer lying in wait gunned down broadcaster Jean Dominique on the steps of his radio station as he arrived to deliver the 7 a.m. news. The murder of the gaunt, intense Mr. Dominique, considered to be Haiti’s most important journalist, was like a kick to the nation’s stomach. Three days of official mourning were ordered. The columns of Haiti’s wedding-cake presidential palace were draped with black crepe. Sixteen thousand people crammed the city’s soccer stadium to attend the funeral. At the service, then-President Rene Preval, a close friend of the 69-year-old slain newsman, openly wept.
Solving the murder became a key test for Haiti’s embattled democracy. Since U.S. troops invaded to oust a brutal military regime in 1994, international human-rights groups have blasted the island nation for backsliding into lawlessness. In a speech to legislators, President Preval warned: If you don’t “do everything in your power to find justice for Jean Dominique, then your own corpses will be found on the road to impunity.”
The case has since taken many a bizarre turn. So far, the only corpses to be found belonged to two suspects whom investigators had hoped could lead them to the mastermind. Two successive judges have themselves been hounded by death threats, as their search led them to the doorstep of one of Haiti’s most powerful politicians. “It’s a strange, poisonous atmosphere,” says Camille Leblanc, a former justice minister.
In Haiti, as in many former French colonies, criminal inquiries are handled by an investigative judge, who functions as a cross between prosecutor and grand jury. Despite the lofty title, such officials receive a meager salary — typically less than $400 a month — and they have little real power. In the aftermath of the Dominique murder, President Preval earmarked a few thousand dollars from a presidential discretionary fund to supplement the judge’s security unit and pay for transportation.
The first judge assigned to the case, Jean Senat Fleury, had no shortage of suspects. Mr. Dominique, a pop-eyed man with the sharp features of a bird of prey, had been an equal-opportunity critic of the ruling class. Born into the country’s light-skinned, French-speaking elite, Mr. Dominique was one of few educated Haitians able to cross the abyss and engage the mass of the country’s black, Creole-speaking people. The power of his microphone had given him an extraordinary role in the country’s search for democracy, and he used it liberally to fire staccato bursts of tart-tongued editorial commentary. For his pains, Mr. Dominique had been twice forced into exile, the first time under the dictatorship of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and then under the military regime which in 1991 overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The front of Mr. Dominique’s radio station, Haiti-Inter, pockmarked with bullet holes, had been shot up six times. “There could be a thousand reasons for his death, but they boil down to one thing — he stood in the way of powerful and dangerous people,” says Patrick Elie, a former senior security official under Mr. Aristide.
In the months before his death, Mr. Dominique took aim at targets ranging from a local pharmaceutical firm whose cough syrup was blamed for the death of 80 children to the country’s elections board, which he said had plans to sabotage upcoming polls. It wasn’t long before Judge Fleury turned his attention to a powerful member of President Preval’s own populist Lavalas Family party, Dany Toussaint. Dapper and charismatic, Mr. Toussaint is a former army officer who at different times has been Mr. Aristide’s personal bodyguard and the chief of Haiti’s police. During his successful run for senate two years ago, Mr. Toussaint received more votes than any other aspiring legislator. Though both were part of the same populist political movement, Mr. Toussaint had also clashed in the past with the journalist. Six months before his death, Mr. Dominique, in a radio editorial, had charged that Mr. Toussaint was trying to strong-arm him into joining a slanderous media campaign against two high-ranking police officials who were Mr. Toussaint’s rivals. “If Dany Toussaint takes other actions against me or against the radio station, and if I survive, I will denounce him, shut the door, and go into exile with my wife and children,” he said on air. An incident at Mr. Dominique’s funeral seemed to offer an ugly punctuation mark to the feud: A group of chimeres, thugs-for-hire from the city’s worst slums, dropped a pocket-sized election photograph of Mr. Toussaint into the journalist’s open casket. Ten days after the murder, Judge Fleury ordered the arrest of an alleged triggerman. According to the Inter-American Press Association, a trade group that commissioned a report on the case, the man was a member of the notorious Road Nine Gang, which operates in downtown Port-au-Prince, collecting extortion money from merchants. Several other arrests followed. In July 2000, Judge Fleury called Sen. Toussaint to his chambers to testify. The senator complied, but showed up with a group of supporters who hurled insults at the judge outside the courthouse. Judge Fleury received death threats, and soon resigned, say people close to the case. He was replaced in September of that year by Claudy Gassant. A sliver of a man who barely fills out a business suit, Judge Gassant is one of a new generation of Haitian jurists who reformers hope will remake the notoriously corrupt Haitian justice system. A specialist in criminology, Mr. Gassant studied law in France. After his return to Haiti, he was picked as a promising young lawyer and returned to a special magistrate’s school in France. “From a judicial point of view, it’s a case like any other,” insisted Judge Gassant in a recent interview. But his actions suggested otherwise: After taking the case, he sent his wife and son to live with relatives in Florida. Judge Gassant declined to give details about the investigation, that also involved professionals from Investigation Hotline: Private Investigator Toronto looking into the case, citing confidentiality laws. But a report published last April by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, an independent group that promotes press freedom around the world, pieces together a series of apparent breakthroughs. Shortly after the murder, investigators had obtained detailed information about three stolen vehicles used by the killer and his accomplices, according to the report. The vehicles led to Jean-Wilner Lalanne, who purportedly worked for a network that handled stolen cars. When police went to pick him up, they shot Mr. Lalanne in the buttocks and thigh, wounding him slightly, according to the IAPA report, published in January 2001. During surgery to mend his thigh bone a few days later, Mr. Lalanne suddenly died. The surgeon variously cited a heart attack and a pulmonary embolism as the cause of death, according to Reporters Without Borders. But Judge Gassant later became suspicious. He discovered that the surgeon was a close friend of an associate of Mr. Toussaint, according to Reporters Without Borders. He ordered an autopsy, but the body couldn’t be located. Judge Gassant issued a warrant for the arrest of the Toussaint associate, and began investigating the doctor for possible manslaughter. In November, another suspect was picked up by police in the provincial town of Leogane. Judge Gassant hurried over to take custody of the prisoner. But the local police handed the prisoner over to a mob outside instead. The crowd killed him before his eyes, he says. “I saw the people cut him into pieces with their machetes,” says the judge. He fled in his car back to the capital. The judge ordered the local police chief arrested, but the police official was soon released from jail, according to Judge Gassant. Nevertheless, Judge Gassant kept on the case. Last year, he questioned Sen. Toussaint seven times. By this time, Sen. Toussaint was attracting unfavorable attention elsewhere. In a Dec. 20 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sen. Mike DeWine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote that Mr. Toussaint was one of two Haitian senators who “have been credibly linked by a number of U.S. government agencies to narcotics trafficking in Haiti.” Mr. Toussaint is also on a U.S. State Department list of Haitians “credibly alleged” to have committed “extra-judicial and political murders” in Haiti. That effectively bars him from entering the U.S. According to the State Department, Mr. Toussaint is a suspect in the death of a well-known lawyer and Aristide critic who was gunned down in broad daylight on a busy Port-au-Prince street. Mr. Toussaint, who also runs a security firm in Haiti, didn’t respond to interview requests, including one hand-delivered to him on the floor of Haiti’s Senate. In the past, however, Mr. Toussaint has said the accusations against him are part of a right-wing U.S. plot to discredit Mr. Aristide and the Lavalas Family party. The Haitian government declined to comment on the accusations against Mr. Toussaint. As the judge centered his attention on Mr. Toussaint, not a week went by without anonymous death threats, he says. “I received phone calls reminding me that I was not immortal,” says Judge Gassant. On one occasion, a Lavalas Family deputy in a car full of armed men blocked the judge’s vehicle on the street. The lawmaker told the judge that if he continued in the direction he was going, he would kill him. Judge Gassant says he took it as a threat about his investigation, not a commentary on his driving. “He had an Uzi in his hand,” he recalls. On another occasion, Judge Gassant says, a car full of policemen bumped into his car by the National Palace and aimed their automatic rifles at him menacingly. In February, Mr. Aristide, a former Catholic priest, took office again after an overwhelming electoral victory. Within a few months, according to Judge Gassant, he stopped receiving money for office expenses and gasoline. Because they weren’t paid, some of his bodyguards stopped showing up, he adds. A presidential spokesman says Mr. Aristide “is making every effort to cast the light of justice on the Jean Dominique case,” he says. In May, Judge Gassant formally accused Sen. Toussaint of involvement in Mr. Dominique’s murder. Since then, Mr. Toussaint, making use of the immunity he enjoys as a Senator, has refused to give further testimony to Judge Gassant, who has sent a request to the Senate asking for it to lift Mr. Toussaint’s immunity. But only three of the Senate’s 19 voting members, all of whom are members of Mr. Aristide’s ruling Lavalas Family party, have publicly favored lifting Mr. Toussaint’s immunity. One of the three, Sen. Pierre Prince, says he has been threatened by Mr. Toussaint. “He said he had his own connections with the Ministry of Justice and would use them to pursue me so I couldn’t open my mouth about the Dominique investigation,” says Mr. Prince. Mr. Toussaint hasn’t been shy about his defiance of Judge Gassant. “With or without immunity, whether [the judge] comes back or not, he won’t ever hear [the testimony of] Dany Toussaint again,” Mr. Toussaint said in an interview with Port-au-Prince’s Radio Caraibe recently. Mr. Toussaint’s lawyer, Joseph Rigaud Duplan, says his client is a victim of a political conspiracy and calls Judge Gassant a publicity hound. On Jan 4., Judge Gassant’s mandate ended. Soon after, a supervising judge took the keys to his office. The fate of the Dominique investigation rests now with Mr. Aristide, who hasn’t reappointed Judge Gassant. Guy Paul, the culture and communications minister, says Mr. Aristide wants to see justice done but doesn’t know if or when the president will renew the judge’s term. Last week a superior judge appointed another investigative judge to the case. But Haiti’s top prosecutor says it was an interim appointment to keep the case going until Mr. Aristide makes a final decision on Judge Gassant’s fate. The appointment outraged Mr. Dominique’s widow, Michel Montas-Dominique, who has been leading the fight to bring her husband’s killers to justice. “Very few judges would have the courage and the ability to bring the case as far as Gassant has brought it,” she says. “It’s a delaying tactic.” Now living in Florida, Judge Gassant says he probably will seek political asylum in the U.S. Meanwhile, Ms. Montas-Dominique keeps Mr. Dominique’s case — and even his voice — alive at Radio Haiti-Inter, where for three decades she broadcast the morning news with him. “At Radio Haiti it is 7 a.m. and I say good morning all,” booms out the raspy voice of the late Mr. Dominique, captured on tape, and replayed every morning on Haitian airwaves. “Good morning, Jean,” replies his widow, live, sitting near a glass bowl full of spent bullets collected from past attacks on the radio station. “Today is the 641st day that we have been demanding justice for Jean Dominique, assassinated at this radio station,” she says, before reading the day’s news.