The sudden death on October 4 of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and the initial information that he would be honored with a state funeral stunned the victims who had filed suit against Duvalier for massive violations of human rights during his regime. It also created an unexpected ripple effect in the press and the social media, with radio and television stations in Haiti and the diaspora broadcasting once more the voices of people who suffered under the brutal repression of the two Duvaliers, father and son. The storm was further powered by social media.
A petition addressed to President Michel Martelly protesting “the ultimate insult that would represent a state funeral for the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier” went viral, gathering signatures all over the world. Two days later, the government was forced to cancel the formal ceremony reserved for heads of state, and Duvalier was buried Saturday in a private ceremony.
Named president-for- life by his father, Francois Duvalier, in 1971, and overthrown in 1986 by a popular uprising, Jean-Claude Duvalier returned in 2011 after 25 years in exile. Considering the difficulty faced by the country at the time–a year after the devastating earthquake that took more than 200,000 lives and destroyed the capital’s infrastructure–and with the prevailing climate of impunity in Haiti, Duvalier seemed assured that he would never be prosecuted and that he could quietly reclaim his assets frozen in Swiss banks.
But shortly after his surprise return to Haiti, on January 17, 2011, Duvalier was summoned by a public prosecutor, and formally accused the next day by the state and by a handful of victims of human rights violations and embezzlement. The government reopened a previous lawsuit brought against Duvalier and associates in France, the U.S., Switzerland and Haiti, among other countries.
With the support of Haitian and international human rights organizations, 29 plaintiffs went to court demanding that Duvalier be held accountable for the human rights violations during his 15-year regime. Some of the plaintiffs are journalists who were arrested, tortured, or exiled, particularly during the crackdown on the media on November 28, 1980. That day, a thick shroud of fear fell over the country. Radio Haiti, which had led the movement toward a more independent press in the late 1970s, was physically destroyed, its reporters jailed and later exiled– as were tens of journalists from other news outlets. Most newspapers and radio stations stopped printing or broadcasting national and local news. When Radio Soleil, a Catholic radio station, tried to reopen a window of freedom, three years later, it was forcibly shut down.
On February 28, 2013, the former dictator was forced to appear publicly before an appellate court. That was a turning point. On February 20, 2014 , a three-judge panel ruled that Haiti has no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. The judges appointed a member of the panel to investigate those crimes and allegations of corruption.
In the past seven months, nothing seemed to move on the judicial front. No funds were provided for the judge to pursue his investigation. The state has taken no measures to use the technical assistance offered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. There was no request for information, nor any search for evidence addressed to other countries or international institutions. Until his death of a heart attack, Duvalier, who had theoretically been put under house arrest three years ago, was circulating freely, a frequent patron of chic Petionville restaurants, in contrast to another former head of state, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was placed under effective house arrest a month ago, under similar accusations of corruption.
Duvalier’s sudden death triggered reactions from all sectors of Haitian civil society, with many victims coming forward to tell the story of a father or of an uncle, killed or tortured.
Will his death mean the end of proceedings against the dictatorship?
While the case against Duvalier himself has technically died with him, the plaintiffs have stressed that the proceedings against the regime do not end here. Many of Duvalier’s close collaborators and henchmen are also included in the current lawsuit.
The general climate of impunity has allowed another emblematic case, that of my husband, journalist Jean Dominique, to linger for the past 14 years, in spite of our constant efforts to pursue the people who engineered the crime and paid for it, from the lower courts to the highest one, the Cour de Cassation.
Jean, the owner and director of Radio Haiti, was assassinated on April 3, 2000.
CPJ and other professional and human rights organizations have helped keep the case alive. Most recently, an investigating judge from the same appellate court in charge of the Duvalier case has named nine people who should be charged for initiating and committing the assassinations of Jean Dominique and Jean-Claude Louissaint, a station employee, killed the same day. Most recently in June, one key witness and presumed accomplice, on the run since 2004, was repatriated from Argentina to stand trial.
If both emblematic cases, that of those who committed human rights violations under the Duvalier regime and that of Jean’s assassins, end in trials, Haiti would make a significant step toward ending impunity and building the lasting foundations of a sustainable democracy.