PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 23 (Reuters) – Haiti’s new interior minister said on Tuesday he plans to integrate rebels who helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into the police, but will keep out those accused of human rights abuses.
Former Gen. Herard Abraham also made clear in an interview he wanted to re-establish Haiti’s army — a rebel demand opposed by rights activists and others who feel the impoverished country, which can barely feed itself, has higher priorities. He previously said he would look into the issue.
“There’s a plan to re-integrate rebels into the police force,” Abraham, a former armed forces chief who in 1989 handed power to a civilian government to end a military dictatorship, told Reuters.
“I don’t want to give names but we will do a screening. We need to evaluate before integrating them into the police force. It’s in the context of human rights abuses that I am talking of a screening process,” he said.
Former soldiers, drug-running street gangs and one-time death squad bosses launched a revolt six weeks ago against Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president. Aristide, a former slum priest, fled into exile on Feb. 29 as rebels advanced and Washington urged him to leave.
Among the rebels — hailed as “freedom fighters” by new Prime Minister Gerard Latortue — are convicted human rights abusers.
They include Louis Jodel Chamblain, a co-leader of the FRAPH death squad blamed for killing thousands of supporters of Aristide’s Lavalas party from 1991 to 1994. He was convicted in absentia in 2000 of multiple killings.
Abraham, 69, a military man regarded as having a rare penchant for democracy in a country with a history of brutal military governments, sought to calm concerns over what rights groups see as an “unholy alliance” between the rebels and Latortue.
He said he would fight impunity and that all those responsible for abuses would be put on trial.
“Those who have committed human rights abuses will be taken care of by the legal system. If there are people, not only Chamblain, who have committed human rights abuses, justice has to deal with them,” he said.
Rights groups fear prospects for such prosecutions are dim after Latortue called the rebels freedom fighters. Abraham, a soft-spoken man who often refers to himself in the third person, said he was discussing disarmament with rebel chief Guy Philippe, a
former soldier who became a police commissioner. While police chief, Philippe’s force was accused of extrajudicial killings.
The rebels, who control the countryside, have pledged several times to lay down their weapons.
“(Philippe) said he is ready to hand them over because his goal was the departure of Aristide. There will be a commission that will be in charge of contacting those who have weapons.”
In comments that may trouble some international supporters of the new government, Abraham said he had set up a committee to “restructure” the armed forces — an institution tainted in the past by coups and repression.
The armed forces were disbanded after Aristide was returned to power by a U.S.-led occupation in 1994. He had been ousted by a military coup three years before. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and depends on foreign aid to feed its mostly undernourished 8 million people, but Abraham said the “new armed forces” would be in charge of fighting terrorism and the
“The Americans have a different opinion, but General Abraham thinks Haiti needs an army. The police can’t fight terrorism and drug
trafficking,” he said. U.S. military officials leading 3,000 U.N.-sanctioned peacekeepers say they expect the poorly equipped, 4,000-member police force to be in charge of law and order.