The decision of a Haitian magistrate not to prosecute Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier for crimes against humanity is regrettable. For Haitians to have faith in the state, it must be able to hold leaders accountable for their actions.
Of course, this is easier said than done in Haiti, which faces so many extraordinary challenges, including rebuilding its infrastructure and institutions, following the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, and strengthening its fragile democracy.
During Mr. Duvalier’s 1976-1986 presidency, a militia known as the Tonton Macoutes committed arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances, rapes and summary executions. Hundreds of Haitians were killed; and hundreds of thousands fled the country.
When Mr. Duvalier returned to Haiti in January, 2011, after 25 years in exile, he was charged with human-rights crimes. Many victims of torture came forward. Last month, an investigative magistrate dismissed the more serious charges, ruling that a 10-year statute of limitations had expired. Mr. Duvalier will only face trial for misappropriation of government funds, which has a maximum five-year sentence.
The handling of the case reflects the weakness of the justice system, and the enduring political power of Duvalier loyalists, some of whom support the current leader, President Michel Martelly. “There is no appetite for a prosecution against Mr. Duvalier,” says Carlo Dade, a Haiti expert and senior fellow at the University of Ottawa.
Even when he was sentenced to house arrest, Mr. Duvalier thumbed his nose at authorities. He was seen dining in fine restaurants in the capital, and even gave a speech at a law school graduation in Gonaives. “Unless this ruling is overturned on appeal, it’s just going to be another confirmation that the justice system is always on the side of the rich and the powerful,” says Reed Brody, with Human Rights Watch.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled that statutes of limitations are inadmissible in connection with gross human-rights violations proscribed in international law. The magistrate could have used this legal precedent and allowed complaints from victims of torture to be heard. This would have sent an important signal that no Haitian is above the law.