By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) – France urged its former colony Haiti on Saturday to avoid a “witch hunt,” a day after the political party of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide accused the government of arresting sympathizers.
On a visit to Haiti to see French soldiers in a U.S.-led peace force, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier nevertheless praised the government of interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, which denies it has launched a campaign of retribution against Aristide’s supporters.
“It is a fundamental requirement of any state of law to always know how to differentiate between justice and vengeance, and between holding people accountable and carrying out a witch hunt,” Barnier said in a speech in Port-au-Prince.
Barnier arrived on Friday in the impoverished Caribbean country which gained independence from France in 1804. Just before the arrival, Aristide’s Lavalas Family party said at least 12 members — including Annette Auguste, one of Aristide’s most influential backers — had been detained in a new wave of arrests over the previous 10 days.
“Those people have been arrested arbitrarily, without a warrant and in violation of their rights,” party spokesman Gilvert Angervil said.
Police Chief Leon Charles said police were seeking other Aristide allies suspected of being involved in crimes.
“I have a lot of warrants, we are looking for those people, so that they may face justice,” he told Reuters.
In recent weeks, the inmate population of the renovated national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince swelled to just short of 150 people from about 20, prison guards said.
It was impossible to verify how many were linked to Lavalas, which has accused Latortue of a retribution campaign since Aristide fled a month-long armed revolt on Feb. 29.
Lavalas supporters have been keeping a low profile. They plan to march on Tuesday in Port-au-Prince in one of their first opportunities to show how much support Aristide still commands.
Latortue was named by a council of prominent Haitians to lead the country to elections in 2005. He denies targeting Aristide supporters even as rebels that helped drive the former Roman Catholic priest from power remain armed and at large.
Haitian Justice Minister Bernard Gousse told Reuters it was not his fault if the previous government “based its policies on corruption, drug-trafficking, on human rights abuses.”
“I have always said that I will not use the constitutional system as of tool of revenge or lynching,” he said.
The arrest of Auguste, 60, has become a rallying point for Lavalas supporters, many of whom came from the slums where Aristide was revered as a champion of the poor.
Auguste was arrested on Monday when U.S. Marines in a multinational peacekeeping force burst into her house. The community leader, who had an operation three months ago, was sleeping.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led force, Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, said U.S. troops searched Auguste’s home after receiving information about possible activities that could threaten them. Auguste and 11 relatives were interrogated for about seven hours before all except Auguste were released.
“I challenge anybody to prove I have been involved in any criminal activities,” she said from prison. “But I know the regime now in power considers being close to Aristide an awful crime.”