Originally: U.S. Considers Case Against Aristide
April 2, 2004; Page A7
MIAMI — U.S. prosecutors are investigating whether Haiti’s recently ousted president received millions of dollars for allowing drug traffickers to ship cocaine through the chaotic island nation, people familiar with the matter say.
Although any indictment could be months away, these people say the investigation has gained momentum since President Jean Bertrand Aristide left office in February. At least one convicted major cocaine trafficker has stepped forward to offer details of Mr. Aristide’s purported involvement in the trade. Moreover, last month one of Mr. Aristide’s top security officials, Oriel Jean, was extradited from Canada to face drug charges in a Miami federal court.
A person familiar with the matter said the government hopes to secure Mr. Jean’s cooperation. Mr. Jean’s attorney, David Raben, declined to comment on any negotiations and said, “We will defend the accusation very aggressively.”
Mr. Aristide’s lawyer here, Ira Kurzban, vehemently denied the allegations as “all lies” and “part of the U.S. government’s ongoing campaign of political assassination.”
Change in Political Climate
“This appears to me to be part of the whole anti-Aristide campaign,” added Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat and a staunch Aristide supporter. “It contradicts everything I’ve heard about Aristide’s cooperation with U.S. drug authorities.”
U.S. officials concede they have weighed political factors in the past in deciding whether to pursue drug-related charges against Mr. Aristide, a fiery leftist and former Catholic priest. For the past few years, U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials say there have been reports that at the very least, Mr. Aristide turned a blind eye as his political movement, Famille Lavalas, profited from Haiti’s growing involvement in the drug trade.
As of late last year, one official says, there was “plenty of circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun” pointing to Mr. Aristide’s alleged drug ties. Officials in Washington debated the pros and cons of pursuing an indictment. But while he remained in office, the officials concluded that an indictment would work against U.S. interests, since the U.S. would lose all leverage to get Mr. Aristide’s cooperation on issues such as the repatriation of Haitian refugees. Under international law, it is difficult to indict a sitting head of state.
Now the political equation has changed, U.S. officials say. Mr. Aristide has antagonized Washington by insisting he was ousted by a U.S.-sponsored coup d’état and then kidnapped. American officials flatly deny that account, but the accusation has resonated in the region. Last week, the fifteen-nation Caribbean Community withheld recognition from Haiti’s new U.S.-backed interim government.
High-ranking U.S. officials now are arguing strongly to clear the political road for an indictment — but only if the evidence warrants it, so as to avoid charges of political manipulation, says a person involved in the deliberations. “You only get one bite at the apple,” a U.S. law-enforcement agent says.
Agents are intrigued by stacks of rotting $100 bills found in a secret basement compartment by looters who ransacked Mr. Aristide’s mansion. They believe the cash may be linked to possible drug payments and want to examine the moldy money, which totaled about $350,000.
To be sure, one big obstacle to any U.S. case is the criminal history — and possible motives — of the possible witnesses. One who has come public is Beaudouin Ketant, a convicted Haitian drug trafficker who in February accused Mr. Aristide during a Miami court hearing of controlling Haiti’s drug trade (check the source). Prior to a judge sentencing Mr. Ketant to rehabilitation drug detox and twenty-seven years in prison, the defendant compared Mr. Aristide to a hungry baby. Mr. Aristide “never stops. He keeps on sucking, because if you don’t pay, you die or you have to get out,” Mr. Ketant said.
Payments for Landing Strip
For more than a decade, as Mr. Ketant headed an organization that shipped some fifteen tons of cocaine to the U.S., the flamboyant drug dealer threw lavish parties and hobnobbed with top officials in Mr. Aristide’s government, according to U.S. law-enforcement officials. He had done the same with the top brass of the military regime that overthrew Mr. Aristide in 1991 and ran the country until U.S. troops returned Mr. Aristide to power in 1994, according to Mr. Ketant’s sentencing report.
According to a member of his legal team, Mr. Ketant met Mr. Aristide in 1998. At the time, Mr. Aristide was preparing to run for the presidency a second time in 2000. By Mr. Ketant’s account, he began paying Mr. Aristide a monthly cash retainer of $500,000, says the member of his legal team. Mr. Ketant also claims to have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mr. Aristide’s Famille Lavalas movement, the president’s Aristide Foundation social-work organization, and to top cops. The money bought Mr. Ketant rights to use a stretch of National Route 9, a new highway close to Mr. Aristide’s mansion, as a landing strip for drug flights, the member of Mr. Ketant’s legal team says.
Mr. Aristide’s lawyer, Mr. Kurzban, says, “President Aristide never met with drug dealers and never dealt personally with money. He has no drug money. He has no money, period.”