Originally: Sham Justice in Haiti

August 20, 2004

Haiti’s caretaker government, installed with U.S. backing after the country’s first elected president in almost 200 years, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was toppled in a bloody insurrection this year, has uttered all the right words about establishing the rule of law, laying the groundwork for honest elections and achieving national reconciliation. From the outset, though, the government’s actions have cast doubt on its words. In a farcical trial this week, a death squad leader who terrorized Aristide supporters in the early 1990s was acquitted of the 1993 murder of a prominent pro-democracy activist and businessman, Antoine Izmery.

The trial of Louis Jodel Chamblain was scheduled just a few days before it began, giving lawyers little chance to prepare and, crucially, leaving witnesses almost no time to be notified; of eight summoned by the prosecution, apparently just one showed up, and he said he knew nothing about the case. Most of the one-day proceeding took place after midnight. A verdict was reached around dawn. 

A month ago, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, writing in The Post, pledged “a transparent and accountable government” based on “a new sense of security for every Haitian.” At the time he was seeking about $1 billion in international aid — successfully, as it turned out. But at home Mr. Latortue and his government have embraced unsavory figures and prejudged Mr. Chamblain’s trial. The premier, after just 11 days in office, praised the vigilantes who helped overthrow Mr. Aristide as “freedom fighters” — presumably including Mr. Chamblain, a key leader of the uprising. Justice Minister Bernard Gousse, who arranged Mr. Chamblain’s surrender in April, told the Miami Herald at the time that the accused man had “nothing to hide,” despite convictions in absentia not only for Mr. Izmery’s murder but also for the 1994 massacre of several Aristide supporters in the Haitian slum of Raboteau. He also has predicted that Mr. Chamblain may be pardoned even if he is convicted in a retrial on the Raboteau massacre charges.

The Bush administration, which encouraged Mr. Aristide’s ouster after three weeks of violence in February, managed to express “deep concern” at Mr. Chamblain’s acquittal. But the State Department’s brief statement, issued by a deputy spokesman and including words of sympathy for Haiti’s interim government and its challenge in rebuilding “corrupted institutions,” is unlikely to apply much pressure to ensure that Mr. Chamblain faces real justice in his retrial for the Raboteau massacre. That’s a shame, and an insult to the legacy of brave Haitians such as like Mr. Izmery, who risked their lives in the early 1990s for a cause they thought they shared with the United States: democracy. The administration has promised to stay engaged to make sure things go right this time in Haiti, as U.S. governments have pledged so often in the past. A question now is whether such engagement will further the rule of law in Haiti or help subvert it.