Originally: Evidence vanishes, judges flee, suspects are killed in jail and a widow’s doubts grow.

January 3, 2005

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the 18 months that the case of journalist Jean Dominique’s slaying languished at the Supreme Court, two presiding judges resigned in fear for their lives, two suspects were killed in jail and most of the evidence went missing.

Mishandled proceedings have been the only constant in the aftermath of the April 2000 assassination of Haiti’s most outspoken radio commentator. The case preceded Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s second presidency and is undermining the interim leaders who have replaced him.

“I don’t think the government, now or before, realized that this case has gone way beyond our borders,” said Dominique’s widow, Michele Montas, who has lived in New York since an attempt on her life two years ago. “There are so many questions vital to Haiti: a free press, a judicial system that functions, the need to show that an end to impunity is within sight. But no one does anything to move it along.”

Heavily armed gunmen ambushed the 69-year-old Dominique in the courtyard of Radio Haiti Inter, the station he had founded, killing him and a gatekeeper. The assailants arrived in high-powered vehicles whose way through the capital’s traffic-snarled streets had reportedly been cleared by police, stirring suspicions that the assassination had been ordered from top levels of Aristide’s Lavalas Party.

The latest setback in the case involved the loss, or misplacement, of dusty boxes of evidence amassed by investigators.

Justice Minister Bernard Gousse revealed in December that only 32 of the 196 evidence files could be found. Journalists had asked him to explain why a new investigation into the killing ordered by the Supreme Court in June had not begun.

Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom watchdog, accused officials in the interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue of “negligence, if not complicity.”

Montas called the discovery “alarming” and speculated that loyalists of the now-exiled Aristide had infiltrated the courts to sabotage the case.

Two weeks after Gousse’s disclosure, some of the missing files were found at the district court that had issued a pretrial report in March 2003. The report named six gunmen but made no attempt to identify who had ordered or paid for the killing. As the suspects awaited trial in jail, two were killed and the other four escaped in the chaos that followed Aristide’s Feb. 29 flight to Africa amid a rebellion.

The location of the wayward evidence has deepened suspicion.

“I think there is an invisible hand in this that belongs to people who don’t want justice for Jean Dominique, people who might be implicated themselves,” said Pierre Esperance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.

A previous investigation focused on Dany Toussaint, a former Lavalas senator whom Dominique frequently had criticized for alleged ties to the drug trade and threats against political opponents. Toussaint ignored orders to appear for interrogation during the first investigation, claiming parliamentary immunity. He now heads a new political party and plans to run for office in the next elections. Toussaint declined to discuss the investigation.

Esperance also said it was unclear whether all of the files said to have gone astray had been found at the district court. The Justice Ministry has ordered an inventory, but there appears to be no one in Haiti who is knowledgeable about the files’ original contents. The last investigating judge on the case, Claudy Gassant, fled to Florida in 2001, citing concerns for his safety. His predecessor also resigned, claiming his life was in danger.

“I don’t think the government is complicit. It’s more the incapacity of the courts and the judges to handle the process and keep track of the files,” Esperance said, pointing out that the courts are in the same disarray that afflicts the rest of the country. There are few telephones, little furniture and no security to prevent unauthorized access to evidence or records.

Some observers dismiss misplacement of evidence as the result of lax management.

“The files weren’t missing. They never left the [district] court. They probably weren’t needed” for the Supreme Court determination, said Guy Delvas of the Haitian Journalists Assn.

A new investigating judge has yet to be named, but the prosecutor recently assigned to the case said authorities were stepping up pressure to seek justice in the high-profile assassination.

“Nothing has been done for the past eight months because of the missing files, but I believe that work will resume soon,” said Jean Pierre Audain. “We have received specific instructions from the Justice Ministry to resume the investigation.”

Montas, meanwhile, waits with barely concealed skepticism that justice will be done.

“People are dragging their feet as much now as before,” she said. “With so much at stake for the reputation of Haiti, you have to ask yourself, why?”

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times