Is Haiti’s justice system up to the test?

By Javier Zuñiga

Haiti’s former President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier is due to face trial over his alleged responsibility for torture, killings and disappearances during his rule. © AP

Bringing to justice current or former heads of state is always complicated – in both legal and political terms. But it is possible. Time and again, former dictators and human rights abusers have been tried and convicted in countries across the world.

But in Haiti, where the judiciary still suffers from structural deficiencies inherited from the dictatorship years, bringing former President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier to justice over his alleged responsibility for crimes such as torture, killings and disappearances during his time in office is proving particularly challenging.

The former leader showed contempt for the justice system and victims by failing to appear at two previous hearings for his alleged involvement in those crimes. On February 21, he is due to appear in court again. Yet the backdrop to the case sees Haitian authorities showing little real interest in pressing for Duvalier to be held accountable for his actions. Indeed, in several public statements, President Michel Martelly has hinted at pardoning Duvalier. Meanwhile, the former Haitian leader has continued to take part in public events, despite having being placed under house arrest while charges against him are investigated.

Just as troubling, Duvalier was recently granted a diplomatic passport, a further sign that other powers of the state are inclined to ensure impunity from prosecution for the former dictator. This is despite the fact that there seems sufficient evidence to prosecute Duvalier for widespread arbitrary detentions, torture, deaths in custody, killings and disappearances that took place under his regime.

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