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World Perspective | THE CARIBBEAN

In Haiti, Wheels of Justice Turn Ever So Slowly

Officials of brutal regime responsible for 1991 coup remain free more than three years after nation regains democracy.

April 11, 1998|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — During his years in Haiti's brutal military regime, U.S. prosecutors say, Lt. Col. Michel-Joseph Francois built clandestine airstrips, corrupted his nation's air and seaports and generally transformed Haiti into a transshipment hub for Colombia's drug cartels.

As police chief of Port-au-Prince, Francois made millions of dollars in bribes and profits in an alleged conspiracy that smuggled about 30 tons of cocaine through Haiti and into U.S. cities between 1987 and 1996, according to a federal indictment pending against him in Miami.

U.S. and Honduran drug enforcement agents arrested Francois last year in Honduras, where he spent several months in prison. But today, Francois is a free man. U.S. prosecutors do not even know his whereabouts.

During those same years, Emmanuel "Toto" Constant ran the regime's paramilitary group, which Haiti's elected leaders now blame for thousands of killings. Constant, who asserts that he was a paid CIA operative at the time, is wanted for trial here in the Haitian capital.

U.S. authorities know precisely where Constant is: He's a free man, living in Queens, N.Y.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered him deported, but other U.S. government agencies intervened to block the deportation temporarily, saying his return would place an undue burden on Haiti's judicial system.

Those are but two examples of how, more than three years after the Clinton administration sent 20,000 troops to restore democracy in Haiti, officials here and in the U.S. have failed to punish most of the military leaders who drove elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile in 1991 and then brought terror to their nation.

In the coming weeks, aides to current Haitian President Rene Preval say, they plan to push for the extradition of the two top leaders of the '91 coup--Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, who are wanted for trial in a 1994 massacre that left more than a dozen dead and 60 homes destroyed in the town of Gonaives.

Both men are living in Panama, where the U.S. military transported them under a deal brokered by former President Jimmy Carter just hours before U.S. troops landed here in September 1994.

The extradition plan comes after two years of painstaking investigation in Haiti--two years that have seen little or no justice meted out to those accused of brutalizing this nation of 7 million through the first half of the decade.

Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer who serves as the Haitian government's general counsel, blamed the delays on Haiti's archaic and dysfunctional legal system and the close ties the former regime had with the U.S. intelligence community.

"It's just a difficult process," Kurzban said. "It's slow going because of the nature of the Haitian legal system, which everyone from the president on down knows needs reform. And it's difficult, given Haiti's many problems, to reform the system very quickly."

If the Haitian government succeeds in extraditing Cedras and Biamby from Panama, their fate under Haiti's legal system appears none too bright. Two former regime figures who have been jailed in Port-au-Prince have languished there without trial for nearly two years, diplomats and human rights officials say.

Of Francois, the former police chief, Kurzban added: "I think it is tragic that the United States was unsuccessful in extraditing him to Florida."

Just how Francois escaped justice is not clear.

Francois, who is also wanted on criminal charges in Haiti, was arrested in March 1997 after the indictment against him and 12 co-conspirators was unsealed.

Prosecutors in Miami scheduled a news conference at the time and told reporters that Francois was en route to Miami.

"He never made it to the plane," said Wilfredo Fernandez, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Miami. "It just ended there, in Honduras."

U.S. officials argued for his extradition, taking the case to the highest court in Honduras.

But last July, five of the nine Honduran Supreme Court justices ruled in Francois' favor, and he went free.

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