Priests arrest spotlights Haiti repression

Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Roman Catholic priest, pro-democracy activist, former Lavalas government cabinet minister and defender of the poor was arrested by Haitian police on Oct. 13, becoming the latest victim of the unfolding wave of repression that is washing over the country.

Police surrounded the Church of Saint Claire in the poor neighborhood of Petite Place Cazeau in Port-au-Prince, where Jean-Juste is pastor, and arrested him on the relatively trivial charge of disorderly conduct. Bystanders reported that police beat and then dragged Jean-Juste through shattered glass and placed him into a waiting police car. Police then shot into the assembled crowd, wounding three children who had been waiting for a parish food distribution.

“When we saw the police start to hit the priest with their guns, we started to yell for help,” said Erseline Louis, 14, who was shot in the leg. “They started firing their guns and I was running to hide when I got shot,” she told the New York Times.

Jean-Juste has publicly demanded that the U.S.-installed government allow deposed President Jean-Betrand Aristide to return to the country to finish his presidential mandate, which expires in 2006. He has also condemned the violent repression unleashed by the current regime in Haiti, headed by former Miami businessman Gerard Latortue.

William P. Quigley, a law professor from Loyola University in New Orleans who is in Haiti to advise Jean-Juste’s lawyers, said that Jean-Juste has still not been brought before a judge as required by law, and is being kept in inhuman conditions. Furthermore, while the police said Jean-Juste was merely brought in for disorderly conduct and for questioning, the justice minister said he was arrested for importing weapons, even though no arms were found, and for inciting the recent violence that has rocked the country.

Jean-Juste denies that he engaged in any criminal activity and said that his arrest is a desperate ploy by the government “to frighten people into silence who they believe do not support them.” He joins the growing list of Haitians who have been jailed by the new government, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, the former minister of interior and the former mayor of Port-au-Prince. According to Quigley, none of them have been given trial dates.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell demanding that he intervene to ensure Jean-Juste’s safety.

A human rights monitor based in Haiti, who wished to remain anonymous, told the World that the repression “has really intensified” over the last several weeks. Government forces and former members of the disbanded military are arresting, killing and “disappearing” more people than ever, she said.

“The international community, the Haitian and international media, and Haitian and international human rights organizations are responsible for what is happening right now,” the monitor said. “They have made it clear that they will not condemn violations of human rights and, as a result, the government and the irregular armed actors working with it know that they can carry out any violence against the population without any interference.”

She said Haitians perceive the United Nation’s peacekeepers as an occupying force because of their unwillingness to provide security to average Haitians and their acquiescence to many human rights violations committed by the government.

Speaking of the regular police raids into neighborhoods known for their support of Aristide and his Lavalas Party, she said, “The UN hasn’t been entering into the neighborhoods with the police, but has been resting at the outside. This is a problem because the most serious abuses occur inside the neighborhoods.”

She remarked that there is some armed resistance to the repression but is unsure to what extent and its level of organization. “I am hearing people say, ‘I am going to die anyway so I might as well die defending a cause.’”

Many Haitians, she said, see the current period as worse than the period of the 1991-1994 coup. “Then the government was not recognized by the international community, whereas now it has full diplomatic recognition, is being supported militarily, and is receiving bilateral and multilateral aid.”

The author can be reached at tpelzer@shaw.ca.