PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) – Haiti’s new leader promised reconciliation but may instead be widening divides in his troubled Caribbean country by praising an armed gang that helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Rights groups and Haiti experts said on Monday they were alarmed at prospects for national unity, the rule of law and justice after Prime Minister Gerard Latortue hailed thugs that launched a rebellion against Aristide as “freedom fighters.”
“Those comments were completely out of line,” said Henry Carey, a professor of political science at Georgia State University. “These guys who he is praising are people who deserve condemnation and prosecution.”
Jocelyn McCalla, head of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights, condemned “the unholy alliance” Latortue forged on Saturday with rebels he visited in the northwest city of Gonaives, where the revolt began on Feb. 5.
“If Haiti is to rid itself of its destructive cycle of lawlessness and political upheavals, its leaders must resolutely break with the past to rapidly establish and promote respect for human rights and the rule of law. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the transitional government’s priority.”
Picked by a council of prominent Haitians to lead the dirt-poor nation, Latortue took office a week ago following Aristide’s flight into exile on Feb. 29 as the rebels advanced and Washington urged him to go.
Aristide was widely hailed as a champion of Haiti’s emerging democracy when he was first elected in 1991 but foes increasingly accused him of political thuggery and corruption.
Many Haitians hope Latortue’s U.N.-backed administration will be a break from two centuries of military coups and corrupt misrule, and bridge the deep divide between Aristide’s mainly poor supporters and his largely more prosperous foes.
They also hope for security, after weeks of lawlessness, and the prosecution of criminals, after years of impunity.
So far the signs are grim.
DEATH SQUAD LEADERS STILL FREE
The rebels who swept through northern Haiti before Aristide’s ouster included former soldiers, drug-running street gangs and onetime death squad leaders, some convicted of human rights abuses.
Some led FRAPH, a group blamed for killing thousands of Aristide’s supporters when a military regime ruled Haiti from 1991 to 1994 after driving Aristide into his first bout of exile.
No attempt has been made to bring them to justice and prospects of that dimmed considerably when Latortue flew into Gonaives and thanked them for fighting the “dictator Aristide.”
Instead, Aristide associates and politicians from his Lavalas Family party are being illegally held captive by armed rebels, Human Rights Watch said on Monday. Others are in hiding or have been killed.
“What is alarming indeed is that rather than trying to reconcile the conflicting parties … this government seems to be moving in exactly the opposite direction, making alliances with known criminals,” said Alex Dupuy, a sociology professor at Wesleyan University.
“The veil has been removed. What I see happening is the return to the unfinished agenda of 1991,” said Dupuy, author of a book on Haiti’s struggle for democracy called “Haiti in the New World Order.”
Some leaders of Aristide’s political opposition said Aristide’s supporters were all criminals, and justice was now being served.
“The rebels are heroes in Gonaives and they are heroes throughout Haiti, whether you like it or not,” said Charles Baker, a wealthy Port-au-Prince industrialist and member of the Group of 184, an anti-Aristide political coalition that distanced itself from the armed revolt but never condemned it.
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