Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

POLITICS-HAITI: Former PM’s Hunger Strike Highlights Sense of Chaos

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, May 9 2005 (IPS) - A three-week hunger strike that now threatens the life of Haiti’s jailed former prime minister, Yvon Neptune, is drawing international attention to the increasingly chaotic situation in the Americas’ poorest nation.

Neptune, who served as prime minister under exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, began taking liquids at the request of his closest friends and family last weekend but remains in an extremely weak condition, according to reports from Port-au-Prince, where he has been held in a government house since March.

Neptune has not seen a judge since shortly after his arrest last June on charges that he masterminded a mass killing in St. Marc in February 2004. The government, which has failed to disclose evidence against him, last week offered to drop all charges on condition that he fly to the Dominican Republic. But he turned it down, declaring that the move was an ill-disguised effort to exile him from Haiti permanently.

Luigi Einaudi, the acting secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and former U.S. ambassador, warned last week that the case has ”serious moral and political implications for the Haitian government and for the international community.”

Additionally, the head of the human rights division of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), Thierry Fagart, denounced Neptune’s continued detention as ”illegal.”

The OAS’ human rights arm, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), issued a statement Friday stressing that it had yet to receive a response from the government of interim Prime Minister Gerard LaTortue to three IACHR communications in as many months regarding Neptune’s legal status and the condition of his health.

The commission also noted that Neptune’s situation was not unique but part of a broader and longstanding problem in Haiti of the prolonged detention of individuals without charge or trial. In a visit there last month, it said, it found that only nine out of 1,054 inmates in the national penitentiary had been convicted of any crime.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which relied heavily on Neptune’s cooperation in the transition between the Aristide’s controversial ouster and the subsequent installation of LaTortue’s government, has not spoken publicly about the situation. Privately, it has pressed the interim regime to release him but to no avail.

”The situation can only be described as ridiculous,” said Jocelyn McCalla, head of the non-governmental National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR) in New York City. ”The Haitians are (defying) their only international supporters.”

With 7,500 soldiers and police, MINUSTAH is the only force in the country that is both well organised and armed. It has been increasingly aggressive in confronting armed gangs and ex-soldiers over the past year but it lacks the mandate and the strength to enforce order across the country.

In a recent briefing here, a U.S. Defence Department official displayed a map of Haiti depicting the relative presence and control of MINUSTAH and Haitian National Police (HNP) forces in different parts of the country.

Except for large cities such as Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien, and Gonaives, virtually the entire country fell under the control of unofficial forces, mainly warlords and armed gangs including former soldiers of the armed forces officially abolished by Aristide in 1995.

The situation makes it very unlikely that elections scheduled for November will be free and fair, according to numerous observers who said there was little prospect of strengthening MINUSTAH forces or the HNP. According to a recent report by the anti-Aristide Haiti Democracy Project (HDP), the national police ”is too small, under-equipped, and uneven in competence, and so infiltrated by either ex-military or sympathisers” of Aristide to be considered reliable.

In its report, based on a visit to Haiti last February, the HDP called for recruiting and dispatching a force of as many as 1,000 auxiliaries hired from Haitian-French, Haitian-Canadian, and Haitian-American police and security professionals to expand the police presence in the countryside before elections and until the HNP reaches 8,000 men. Its strength is currently estimated at 5,000, according to HDP director James Morrell.

Morrell insisted that successful elections still could take place because the number of polling sites was being reduced to ensure government and MINUSTAH control of the voting and thus reduce the chances for intimidation by armed groups. ”It’s really a matter of political will,” he said.

But McCalla, at NCHR, said he remained pessimistic. Funding for the registration and election process was still 20 million dollars short of minimum requirements, he said, adding that popular scepticism about the polling ran high.

”The election will ratify the de facto situation,” McCalla said. ”Whoever holds power on the ground today will win.”

”The guys who will be elected are thugs,” he added.

Recent reports have stressed that the continuing instability has benefited drug traffickers who use Haiti as a transit point for northward shipments.

”Of significant concern are the contacts between drug traffickers and the ex-military,” said the HDP report, which added that corruption by traffickers of the police and the judiciary did not begin after Aristide’s ouster.

Meanwhile, Haiti’s economy, which was supposed to have been boosted by more than 1.3 billion dollars committed by donor nations and agencies at a World Bank meeting one year ago, remains stalled. Only about 20 percent of the funds are believed to have been released to date.

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