Three days after the return of exiled dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier to Haiti, the Port au Prince street rumor-mill, known as radio-trottoir, has shifted into hyper-drive, thanks to the technological boost of cellular telephones, satellite uplinks, and the 24-hour news cycle. After promising to give a press conference on Monday, subsequently postponed to Tuesday, the former president instead was arrested and spent yesterday in court, where he was charged with a laundry list of offenses, ranging from embezzlement to murder to crimes against humanity. He was released later in the day, however, and returned to his lodgings at the Karibe Hotel, where he has kept a low profile, apparently preferring to order from room service rather than show himself in the restaurant. The press conference finally took place a little before noon today, though Duvalier, age 59, still referred to as Baby Doc, maintained his silence of the preceding days, letting his lawyers speak on his behalf.
The lawyers are a story in themselves. One of Duvalier’s attorneys, Gervais Charles, is the head of the Port au Prince Bar Association and also represents one of the leading candidates in December’s disputed Presidential elections, the singer Michel Martelly, who performs under the name Sweet Micky. His other lawyer, Sauveur Vaisse, represents Mrs. Mirlande Manigat, the other leading candidate. Martelly, who was initially ranked in third place, now seems all but certain to compete in the scheduled February run-off between the two top candidates now that the Organization of American States has released its findings, which relegate Jude Celestin, the favored candidate of outgoing President Rene Preval and initially said to have won the most votes, to third place. You don’t have to be a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist to wonder what is going on.
Duvalier, through his lawyers, has announced that he plans to remain in Haiti, though the choice may not be his. The current charges against him come from a 2008 criminal case, the dossier for which appears to have been lost in the earthquake, as were some of the principal complainants who died in the catastrophe. In any case, his lawyers claim, the statute of limitations has run out on his crimes, though in most countries the limitations do not apply to murder or crimes against humanity. Until the case is resolved with the government either dropping the charges or proceeding to trial, Baby Doc is unlikely to go anywhere, although with limited financial resources he may have to move to less posh accommodations.
His financial circumstances may be a clue to his return. Although he is said to have stolen anywhere from $100 million to $800 million during his 15-year rule, there is no telling how accurate those figures are. What is certain is that after his wife, Michele Bennett Pasquet, a member of Haiti’s moneyed mulatto elite, divorced him in 1993, he lost much of his fortune. He could be down to his last few millions, most of which – a reported $4.6 million – is stashed in a Swiss bank. The Swiss Government had blocked the funds following demands by human rights groups, but on January 12, 2010, hours before the earthquake that devastated Port au Prince, the Swiss High Court ruled that the money should be released, since the statute of limitations on Duvalier’s financial crimes had expired in 2001. Immediately after the ruling, the government issued an emergency injunction to keep the funds blocked pending passage of a new law, aimed directly at Duvalier, which would require funds of criminal origin to be given to governments of the countries in which the crimes were committed. This law is to come into effect on February 1, and will apply retroactively to funds already deposited in Swiss banks. The only way for Duvalier to regain control of this money, some say, is to face and be cleared of the charges.
It’s a high-risk game at best. Even if the Haitian government can’t reconstruct the 2008 dossier, there is no shortage of crimes of which Baby Doc has been accused. Today four women, including Michele Montas, a prominent opposition journalist and former spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Claude Rosiers, a Marxist who spent more than 10 years in the jails of Baby Doc and his father, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, filed a criminal complaint accusing the ex-dictator of crimes against humanity, including arbitrary detention, exile, destruction of private property, physical and mental torture, and violation of civil and political rights. According to the local newspaper Le Nouvelliste, others are soon to file similar charges. These could keep the former dictator tied up in legal proceedings in Haiti for the rest of his life. Which may not be very long; one rumor circulating is that Jean-Claude Duvalier is suffering from late stage pancreatic cancer and has come home to die.
There is also the question of where he will go if he ever is freed. He could stay in Haiti, since Haitian law does not allow its citizens to be denied the right to return home (though that raises the question whether exiled former two-time President Jean-Bertrand Aristide will be allowed to return from South Africa, as his supporters fervently wish). After his ouster in 1986, Baby Doc entered France on an 8-day visa, which has never been renewed. Nor did he ever apply for political asylum. So there is no guarantee the French would allow him to return. Though his companion, Veronique Roy, a French national, has frequently been referred to in the press as Duvalier’s wife, she probably is not, since Duvalier could otherwise have been granted French citizenship. Then there is the small matter of passports. Baby Doc came into Haiti on an expired Haitian diplomatic passport, the Haitian authorities having been informed of his return by the French government only an hour before his flight touched down in Port au Prince. Though it was initially rumored that Haiti planned to issue him a new passport, this turns out not to be the case.
One nice thing about writing a blog is that I don’t have to check facts, and can comment on rumors that may or may not be true. So I am far less constrained than the scrum of journalists massed outside the hotel and the courtroom, who have to get independent verification of what they are told before they can publish. At this point, I have very little idea where the truth lies, but in that I am no different from anyone in the local or international media. We all would love to know the real story.