Originally: Haiti tense as key election approaches
Renowned poet and journalist Jacques Roche was visiting his younger brother last month when gangs kidnapped him at gunpoint.
Roche’s friends and colleagues quickly scraped together $10,000 for ransom. It was not enough to save his life.
Four days after he disappeared, Roche’s body was found faceup in the street, his arms handcuffed and chained behind his back.
“Jacques was like a father to me,” said Chenald Augustin, 27, a reporter at Le Matin, where Roche, 43, worked as the newspaper’s cultural editor. “His death hit me so hard.”
Roche’s slaying also sent a shock wave through a country reeling from an epidemic of kidnappings that police, diplomats and others say is being carried out by armed supporters of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to sow chaos as Haiti’s U.S.-backed interim government prepares for elections in the fall.
But Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Roman Catholic priest and prominent Aristide supporter who has been jailed in connection with the crime, said government officials are trying to pin Roche’s slaying on him to destroy the political opposition and sweep the elections.
“I had nothing to do with [Roche’s death],” Jean-Juste, 59, said in an interview at Haiti’s National Penitentiary. “They don’t have any proof. I know that I am going to be exonerated.”
A longtime Miami resident and advocate for Haitian immigrants in the U.S. whose populist sermons have galvanized the poor, Jean-Juste is the third major opposition figure to be jailed since Aristide fled Haiti in February 2004 in the face of an armed rebellion and U.S. diplomatic pressure.
Former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert have been in custody for months while a judge investigates whether there is sufficient evidence to charge them in connection with killings in the city of St. Marc.
The two former Aristide government officials deny involvement and, like Jean-Juste, say they are being singled out because they are leaders in Aristide’s Lavalas Family party.
Juan Gabriel Valdes, the United Nations envoy to Haiti, said UN police are helping local law-enforcement officials investigate Roche’s death, which he said “has all the elements of a political murder.”
The outcome of the investigation into Roche’s death and the case involving Neptune and Privert are likely to have profound implications for Haiti’s future as a 7,600-strong UN peacekeeping force struggles to regain control of a nation racked by poverty and violence.
Lavalas leaders remain divided over whether to participate in the elections, with Jean-Juste and other hard-liners favoring a boycott unless Aristide is returned to power and political prisoners are released.
Diplomats and experts describe interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue as incompetent and say free elections that include Lavalas–Haiti’s largest political movement–are the only way to restore stability.
After a slow start hampered by security concerns, officials now have registered about one-third of the estimated 3 million Haitians they hope will sign up for the elections, which are likely to begin in mid-November.
At one registration center guarded by blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers, Ernest Sauvignon, 56, an unemployed father of five, said the biggest problem facing Haiti is the violent crime.
“No one is able to function,” said the gray-haired Sauvignon, sweat dripping from his forehead as he waited in a long line to register. “Commerce is shut down because merchants can’t go out and sell. A lot of shooting makes people scared.”
The violence increased after Aristide’s ouster as hundreds of former Haitian soldiers defied the government and took up positions across the country.
At the same time, armed pro-Aristide militants seized control of Bel Air, Cite Soleil and other Port-au-Prince slums, and declared war against the outmanned Haitian police and seemingly ineffectual UN force.
But UN troops have struck back in recent months, ousting the former soldiers from their strongholds and killing a half-dozen powerful gang leaders.
Today, UN forces and Haitian police have bases in Cite Soleil and Bel Air, where Brazilian troops in armored personnel carriers and jeeps patrol tense streets largely empty of pedestrians and automobiles.
Nadal Rashdan, a Jordanian who is acting commissioner of the UN police force, said the strengthened UN presence has sharply reduced kidnappings, which in early summer reached as many as 20 a day.
The victims have included business people, doctors, students, foreigners and others. Most have been released after ransoms of $25,000 or more have been paid, but some have been raped and tortured during captivity, according to human-rights officials and police.
Jean Henold Buteau, a physician and Aristide opponent, said kidnappers dripped melted plastic on his feet and crushed his fingers and toes with pliers during his 18-hour ordeal in April.
“It was very, very cruel,” recalled Buteau, 52. “The pain was terrible.”
Michael Lucius, inspector general of the Haitian National Police, said the gangs use the ransom money to buy weapons and loyalty. But he said Roche’s kidnapping was atypical, having less to do with money than politics.
“I don’t think at first the kidnappers knew who he was, but they found out,” said Lucius, who led the police investigation into Roche’s death.
Born near the southwestern city of Les Cayes, Roche moved to Port-au-Prince at an early age and studied art history in college. He lived in the U.S. for many years but returned to Haiti in the early 1980s to begin a career as a poet and journalist.
Roche was a soccer fanatic, and in addition to working at Le Matin, he co-hosted a sports talk show on Radio Ibo. He also anchored a TV program financed by business leaders and others who fought to unseat Aristide.
The television show apparently set him up as a very public enemy in the eyes of pro-Aristide militants.
“He was afraid, and he told me he was going to stop doing the television program,” said Roche’s fiance, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. “He felt his life was in danger.”
The two gunmen who seized Roche on a downtown street July 10 asked for $250,000 in ransom. The next day, colleagues prayed in Le Matin’s white-tiled newsroom and collected $10,000.
Even kitchen staff chipped in
“Everyone contributed money, even the person who worked in the [newspaper’s] kitchen,” said Quesnel Durosier, 31, a reporter at Le Matin.
The kidnappers were unmoved. They told Clarens Fortune, Le Matin’s editor and the chief negotiator, to come up with the remaining $240,000 or Roche would die, according to Durosier and other reporters briefed by Fortune.
On July 13 the kidnappers called Fortune back and told him to forget the money, implying that Roche–who was tortured during captivity–was too important to be set free.
“There was no more hope,” Durosier recalled.
Lucius said a gang leader who remains at large ordered the execution.
And while police have turned up no evidence linking Jean-Juste to Roche’s killing, Lucius accused the priest of sharing responsibility for the crime because he maintains ties to pro-Aristide gangs.
Jean-Juste rejected the accusation, saying pro-government politicians are exploiting Roche’s death for “political mileage.”
“I have always denounced violence,” he said. “I serve the God of life.”