Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste’s struggles with Haiti’s criminal justice system have been a good gauge of the system’s health for the last three years. The latest episode, last month, showed that rule of law is alive in Haiti — if not exactly kicking.
“Fr. Gerry,” a Catholic priest well-known as an advocate for South Florida’s immigrants and Haiti’s poor, has fought charges of murder, treason, weapons possession, disturbing the peace and criminal conspiracy since Haiti’s interim government first arrested him in October 2004. No one has produced any evidence of criminal activity, but that has not stopped Haitian authorities from arresting Jean-Juste three times and jailing him for seven months.
Gérard Latortue, who headed the interim government (March 2004-May 2006) that arrested Jean-Juste, has returned home to Boca Raton, replaced by an elected government led by President René Préval. Jean-Juste has been out of prison since January 2006, when he was released provisionally to seek treatment for leukemia at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
But he still faces charges of illegal gun possession — even though there is no proof he ever possessed any weapons — and criminal conspiracy — even though there is no allegation that he conspired with anyone or planned any crime. There are no witnesses against Fr. Gerry.
When Jean-Juste languished in Haiti’s prisons, his plight was widely condemned by human rights groups and members of Congress as political persecution by an undemocratic regime. When he was released a week before the long-delayed elections that brought President Préval to power, many saw the promise of the return of the rule of law to Haiti. That promise has been only partially fulfilled. Last month’s hearing of Jean-Juste’s challenge to the charges, before the Appeals Court of Port-au-Prince, had many auspicious signs. Jean-Juste and his lawyers made their case freely. Hundreds of supporters turned out without incident. The hearing was orderly. And the prosecutor formally recognized the absence of evidence against Jean-Juste and recommended dismissing all charges.
But the judges declined to dismiss the case, claiming they needed more time to review the file. The Appeals Court has already had 22 months since Jean-Juste filed his appeal, and seven months since a previous appeals hearing in April. That is plenty of time to review almost any file, and more than enough for a file that the prosecutor concedes contains no evidence of wrongdoing.
Jean-Juste has now faced charges under the Préval administration for as long as he did under the Latortue regime. Although Fr. Gerry is not in jail, thousands of other men and women arrested by the interim government are stuck in the democratic government’s prisons, including perhaps a hundred or more political dissidents. Over 90 percent of Haiti’s prisoners have never been tried; most were arrested without a warrant and have no evidence against them in their files. Most are poor, and unlike Fr. Gerry, don’t have access to lawyers or supporters to come to court for them.
The cases of Fr. Gerry and others arrested by the Latortue regime are not President Préval’s fault, but they are now his problem. Although comprehensive reform of Haiti’s justice system is complex, dismissing baseless cases is not.
Haiti’s government can advance the cause of justice, bring hundreds of people home to their families, and save money in the prison budget by simply reviewing case files and seeking dismissals unless the files show a good, legal reason to continue. Ending Fr. Gerry’s battle would be an opportune place to start.
Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org.