Originally: Haiti Town’s Anger Fuels Street Justice: A trial for ex-leaders accused in political slayings is delayed because of fear that victims’ relatives will attack the defendants

March 13, 2005

ST. MARC, Haiti — Weeds have grown in the rubble of his home and dust discolors the singed wreckage, but Fetiere Louidort’s hunger for justice hasn’t lessened in the year since black-clad special forces opened fire on local opponents of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the final days of his presidency.

The last major city between advancing rebels and the capital, St. Marc was about to fall and leave the Aristide government in Port-au-Prince unprotected when helicopters ferried in the gunmen on Feb. 11, 2004. Residents, missionaries and human rights advocates say at least 50 people were killed in the attack, but that number cannot be confirmed.

“They set fire to my house and used it as an oven to burn the bodies of the dead,” Louidort said.

More than a year later, two top former government officials and a local politician are to be put on trial here for their alleged roles in the killings.

But former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert haven’t been arraigned because anger remains so high that authorities fear friends and relatives of the victims will attack the defendants.

When an Aristide supporter who allegedly took part in the killings returned to St. Marc a month later to seek reconciliation, missionary Terry Snow said, he was beheaded, dismembered and his body parts dragged through the streets in an orgy of jubilant vengeance.

“It’s Haitian justice. They’re paying for their crimes, just not through the courts,” Snow said of that lynching and other summary judgments later meted out on the streets. During the slaughter last year, Snow gave shelter to hunted Aristide opponents.

The vigilante justice that followed Aristide’s flight into exile Feb. 29, 2004, helped foster the roiling insecurity gripping most Haitian cities today.

Although gangsters believed loyal to Aristide are blamed for much of the violence plaguing the slums of Port-au-Prince, renegade police officers and demobilized soldiers from the Haitian army who took part in last year’s rebellion still roam the capital with their guns at the ready. An investigation by the National Coalition for Haitian Rights documented at least 403 deaths caused by gang violence since Sept. 30, many of them bystanders caught in the crossfire.

The risk of a lynch mob attacking those accused of masterminding the St. Marc killings has delayed the start of judicial proceedings against Neptune, Privert and Amanus Mayette, a former Lavalas Party lawmaker. Mayette is widely accused by townspeople of coordinating Lavalas militants and the security forces sent in by helicopter, allegedly under Privert’s command and on Neptune’s orders.

“It’s necessary to appease the social climate and to punish the culprits if they are guilty,” Mayor Carmeleau Etienne said.

“These trials are very important in order to heal the wounds and to calm things down,” said Jeancrede Jeanty, the mayor’s chief of staff. “But we need good security. If it’s not good enough, people will go wild. They see the defendants as the devil himself coming to town.”

Neptune had applied for a change of venue, but the Haitian Supreme Court ruled in January that the defendants should be tried at the scene of the attack.

From his cell at the dank national penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, Neptune denied any role in the St. Marc killings and called the charges “politically motivated persecution.”

“The arrest warrant claimed I masterminded and participated in the so-called massacre in St. Marc. I was there two days before. But that visit had nothing to do with the rival gangs that had been fighting each other for the past three years,” Neptune said. “My presence in St. Marc had to do with making sure the police had regained control of the precinct.”

Reflective of the power of rumor and suspicion to convince many Haitians that they are justified in their quest for revenge, some here insist that Neptune was aboard one of the helicopters that fired on a neighborhood at the start of the two-day assault. An architect and intellectual who returned to Haiti in 1994 after 28 years in the United States, Neptune was not known to be directly involved in police or security actions during his tenure.

“We all saw Neptune come with the helicopter. He went to the police headquarters,” said James Dorcelus, who works in the state tax office. “To me, it’s obvious his visit was linked with the start of the massacre.”

John Valery Servil lost his wife and the youngest of his six children when the home they were staying in was firebombed during the attack.

“This won’t be a fair trial. There is no justice for the poor people in Haiti. Here, it’s a matter of money,” Servil said, predicting that judicial authorities will be paid off in Port-au-Prince to see that the defendants go free.

Leslie Jules, St. Marc’s district attorney, fought defense efforts to move the trial for the defendants’ safety. He said he remained confident that an objective jury could be found and a fair trial conducted.

“The ultimate goal isn’t to pacify the people but to get justice,” he said as dozens chanted outside the courthouse for the defendants to be hanged.

Human rights advocates in the capital blame the government of interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and an ineffectual U.N. peacekeeping mission for the persistent insecurity and revenge-taking rife throughout the country.

“The government doesn’t give the police or the courts the means to do their jobs,” said Pierre Esperance, head of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.

He reserved his harshest criticism for the U.N. force, noting that the predominantly South American troops and the hundreds of armored vehicles deployed with them were seldom seen in the increasingly numerous no-go areas of the capital.

Not a single U.N. peacekeeper was at the national penitentiary Feb. 19 when armed gangsters freed dozens of their cronies and reportedly sought to kill Privert and Neptune, a U.N. source said. The defendants were saved by guards who hustled them to a safe location.

In St. Marc, the anger at Privert and Neptune smolders. Beyond the scorched remnants of Louidort’s house hangs a banner saying in Creole that the perpetrators of the massacre are neither forgotten nor forgiven. “You can forget the blow, but the scar will always remind you,” the banner says, a leitmotif of a population that both demands and thwarts justice.

“Leslie [Jules] is doing all in his power to see that a fair and speedy trial is held. But the bottom line is that the people of Haiti have never seen justice and for that reason they have a hard time with forgiveness,” said Snow, who has been a missionary here since 1991.

“There’s not going to be justice here because it has to start with the heart.”