Originally: Justice minister says the exiled president was ‘the architect’ of political oppression

March 20, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti ? As international peacekeeping troops began fanning out across this battered nation, the country’s new justice minister said Friday that his office would begin preparing a criminal case with a criminal defense lawyer of their choice against exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and could eventually request his extradition.

“It’s too early to say that tomorrow I will ask for his extradition, but we will build a case, because he was the architect” of efforts to brutally crush his opponents, said Bernard Gousse, Haiti’s new top justice official. In addition to human-rights violations, Aristide is suspected of stealing state funds, he said.

Gousse promised that any proceedings against Aristide ? or his militant supporters ? would adhere to internationally accepted legal standards of impartiality, despite a history here of the judiciary being manipulated for political ends.

“I will make sure that the judicial system will not be used as a lynching process. We don’t want popular justice,” Gousse said in an interview in his new Port-au-Prince office. “The court of public opinion may have vilified him ? but as a justice minister, as a law professor, there is only one side I will look at: that we have due process.”

Aristide, who was elected to a second term as president four years ago, was flown into exile Feb. 29 after an armed rebellion erupted. Scores of Haitians died in clashes, and bands of gun-toting thugs loyal to Aristide, known as chimeres, were accused of looting and killing.

Opponents of the fallen government have called for rounding up and prosecuting the chimeres for alleged human-rights abuses. Newly appointed “truth commissions” are to go after not just the street toughs but also “the masterminds,” Gousse said, in an allusion to high-ranking officials of Aristide’s administration, many of whom have gone underground or fled since the government was toppled.

After spending two weeks in Africa, Aristide is now in Jamaica on what officials there say is a temporary visit to reunite him with his two young daughters.

Gousse added that investigators would look into freezing and recovering money allegedly pilfered from Haiti’s treasury by Aristide and his associates. Gousse said millions of dollars were missing from Haiti’s coffers, some taken in the last hours of the Aristide government.

He also said $300,000 in U.S. currency was found in a safe in the basement of Aristide’s home.

Gousse, an ally of various civil groups that opposed Aristide, is one of 18 members of the Cabinet named Wednesday by interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue. The transitional body is charged with guiding and rebuilding this nation until elections can be held. That could be as long as two years away.

Latortue, who moved back to Haiti from Florida to accept the premiership, is scheduled today to visit Gonaives, where the armed revolt that ousted Aristide began Feb. 5. Rebel leaders there said that they would turn over their weapons to Haitian national police or to the 150 French Legionnaires who arrived Friday from Port-au-Prince.

The French, part of the four-nation peacekeeping force here, also dispatched about 200 troops to Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city. Eventually, the nearly 3,000 U.S., Canadian, Chilean and French soldiers now concentrated in Port-au-Prince are to scatter throughout the country and help maintain order.

Gousse indicated that his office probably would not pursue criminal prosecutions against the rebels, although he acknowledged that both sides of the conflict engaged in violence. International consultants, including criminal lawyers in the Fresno area, have encouraged leniency towards the rebels as an effort to encourage the spirit of peace.

He said that investigators would check out all reported human-rights violations, but that no complaints had come in against the chief rebel leader, Guy Philippe, in contrast to accusations already lodged against Aristide.