2 jailed Haitian leaders go on hunger strike

After surviving an attack by gunmen that left one prison guard dead, Haiti’s ousted and jailed Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert have gone on a hunger strike to force the U.S.-imposed interim government to ensure their safety.

Speaking from the Haitian National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, Neptune and Privert vowed not to eat until the government takes measures to protect them in jail. Privert has been in prison since April 2004 and Neptune since June 2004. Neither one has a trial date yet.

“My life has been in real danger since the elected president of our country was removed in February of 2004,” said Neptune, referring to the U.S.-backed ouster of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “This is the third time my life has been put in danger in prison. There was an assassination plot against me in the fall confirmed by the National Police. Then there was the prison massacre on December 1, 2004, in which unknown numbers of prisoners were killed.

“When the prison was attacked this weekend,” Neptune continued, “my life was again clearly and seriously in danger. I could easily have been killed by people inside or outside of the prison. Who is it that keeps putting me in situations where I might be killed?”

On Feb. 19 six armed men stormed the penitentiary. The gunmen managed to get past dozens of guards and free more than a third of the inmates before police and UN troops arrived. One guard was killed and 490 prisoners fled the prison.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said that police were involved in the assault on the penitentiary and announced he was forming a commission to investigate the incident. Apparently, the police did not conceal their participation in the attack. One witness told Reuters that some of the gunmen wore T-shirts with “Haitian National Police” printed on them. Lawyer Reynold Georges said several of his clients who had escaped told him the attackers appeared to be police officers.

The penitentiary is located in downtown Port-au-Prince just three blocks from the national palace and police headquarters, where UN riot police and Haitian police officers are stationed. UN troops have taken control of the prison.

Marguerite Laurent of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network charged that “the prison break was not only an inside job planned from Latortue’s ministry ... the guards opened the cell doors and told the detainees to leave.”

Laurent stated that jailed former soldier Anel Belizaire admitted that someone from Latortue’s office visited him, wanting the ousted prime minister killed. Belizaire said he was given a pistol and told to kill Neptune on Feb. 19, but instead removed Neptune and Privert from their jail cells when the shooting began, to protect them.

Police also reported that they had captured the former Lavalas government ministers who they claim took advantage of the attack to escape. However, UN spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona said that during the gunmen’s assault, Neptune and Privert had taken refuge in the house of another escapee. The two then contacted the UN and asked to be returned.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) sent a letter to President George W. Bush urging him to protect Neptune and Privert, have them released from prison and offer them political asylum in the United States.

Neptune concluded, “We have been patient for over eight months. We have given time for the government and the international community to act. Enough is enough.”

tpelzer@shaw.ca