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Haitians Look to Charge Aristide

Officials are reviewing government deals and financial records for evidence of corruption, and probing allegations of drug trafficking.

June 19, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was departing the Caribbean for South African exile last month, he vowed to return to his homeland.

Haitian justice authorities also want him to return -- to face trial on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, misuse of public funds and expropriation.

"We are investigating these misdeeds, and if we have evidence of his wrongdoing, we will seek to extradite him," interim Justice Minister Bernard Gousse said in an interview. "The investigation is continuing, and I don't want to jeopardize it, but I can say we are making progress in discovering the disappearance and misallocation of funds."

Aristide's Miami-based lawyer, Ira Kursban, said his client steadfastly rejects such allegations as "totally false and politically motivated." Noting that only the United States recognizes the interim Haitian government, Kursban described the inquiry as "an investigation designed to smear President Aristide that is directed by the U.S. Embassy in Haiti." Moreover, Haiti has no extradition treaty with South Africa.

On Friday, more than 5,000 Aristide supporters marched through the capital, calling for his return to power and accusing the U.S. government of forcing his departure, Associated Press reported.

Haiti's U.S.-backed interim authorities have jailed an Aristide lieutenant who remained in Port-au-Prince, former Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert, in connection with killings in February of officials in St. Marc who sided with rebels in the three-week insurgency that drove Aristide to flee.

Investigators in both the United States and Haiti are reviewing financial records of Aristide's Cabinet members, parliamentary leaders and members of his Lavalas Party to file charges against any who used their positions to prosper at the expense of the hemisphere's poorest country.

Much of the suspect activity took place under the Aristide Foundation, which oversaw projects jointly funded by the Haitian government and benefactors abroad. The projects included a medical university that was built but never opened, unfinished housing tracts in the capital's seaside slums and road improvement works that were never begun.

"As an example of what appears to have been done routinely, we have found checks from Aristide's private secretary to his personal account for $500,000, beginning early on" in his administration, Gousse said. "Our conversations with officials of the Central Bank have led us to believe these sorts of transactions were business as usual."

Authorities say they believe that Aristide's expropriations were in the hundreds of millions of dollars -- in a country with a national budget of less than $400 million -- but they say the paper trail has disappeared, in part because of destruction carried out in the last days of his rule.

Records of the Aristide Foundation and other public works efforts vanished at the end of the rebellion. Most Lavalas officials have fled or are in hiding, claiming persecution by the new leadership, leaving no foundation authorities to answer the charges.

Aristide, a former priest who became Haiti's first elected leader in 1990, left Feb. 29 on a U.S.-chartered plane that took him to the Central African Republic. Claiming that he had been kidnapped by U.S. Marines and forced to leave office, Aristide returned to the Caribbean two weeks later and took refuge in Jamaica. South Africa granted him asylum, and Aristide left for Pretoria on May 30, vowing to return to Haiti one day.

Meanwhile, problems have continued to afflict Haitians.

Electricity, already nonexistent in rural areas, dwindled to about one hour of service a day in the capital late last month. The interim minister for public works and communications, Jean-Paul Toussaint, said the shortage was a result of contracts signed by the former leadership with private suppliers of fuel for gas-powered generators. The deals wiped out what little was left in the treasury, he said. Late last month, the interim government fired Charles Jacques, the Lavalas holdover running the state-owned utility, and it was disclosed that his previous work experience had been limited to carpentry.

Investigators also are studying government deals that awarded exclusive and lucrative mobile contracts to private telephone companies but never made them comply with requirements to upgrade fixed-line services, Toussaint said.

Authorities have arrested key suspects in alleged state-sponsored drug trafficking since Aristide's departure. Accused drug kingpin Fourel Celestin, who had close ties and frequent access to the presidential palace, was brought to Miami on a U.S. warrant early this month. Others already tried and convicted in U.S. courts, including Beaudoin Ketant, who was sentenced in February to 27 years in prison for drug trafficking, have publicly accused Aristide of overseeing Haiti's narcotics trade.

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