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Haitian Ex-Premier in Gilded Cage as He Awaits Trial That Never Comes

Yvon Neptune is being detained at a villa under U.N. guard. He has been charged in a massacre, but some credit him with averting violence.

July 05, 2005|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Emaciated from an on-again, off-again hunger strike and angry about his detention, former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune spends his days supine on the white-tiled floor of a private villa awaiting his fate.

For months, United Nations officials, U.S. politicians and diplomats from throughout the Americas and Europe have urged Haiti's interim government to release Neptune in recognition of his role in averting large-scale bloodshed last year when he took up the leadership reins after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country.

But Haiti's interim authorities insist the 58-year-old Neptune must be treated like any other criminal suspect and refer to accusations that he masterminded a massacre of Aristide opponents in a village near the port city of St. Marc during the February 2004 rebellion.

The case of Neptune, who was held without charges for 11 months and still awaits a trial date a year after his arrest, they say, differs little from the treatment of other Haitians confronting a still-dysfunctional judicial system that developed on the former prime minister's watch.

"The international community knows the truth," Neptune said. "The ambassadors of the United Nations, France, Canada, the United States -- they all know the truth. My life, my freedom and my security are in their hands."

Answering questions with questions as he lay on a mat, his head and shoulders propped up on three pillows, Aristide's last government chief declined in a brief interview to clarify his legal situation.

What was he charged with during a closed-door arraignment in St. Marc during a May 25 hearing? "Doesn't everyone in the world know that?" he retorted. In fact, no report was made by the court and he had no lawyer present.

Did a government shake-up in late June, including replacement of the controversial interim justice minister, give him confidence his case would be resolved soon? "Who can expect anything from this de facto government?" he replied.

Was he continuing the hunger strike begun in February and again in April to bring about his unconditional release? "What does it look like?" he said.

Though thin and frail, the sole inmate at the $5,000-a-month villa paid for and guarded by the U.N. peacekeeping mission did not appear near death, as reported by visitors who saw him in March, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

Neptune was moved from the dank national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, the capital, to a U.N. hospital, and then to the two-story rental in the upscale district of Pacot for his own protection after gunmen stormed the downtown prison Feb. 19. Prison guards reportedly managed to spirit away to safety Neptune and another high-profile inmate.

The interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has declined to discuss Neptune's case except to say that he should be treated like any other criminal suspect.

Last month, 10 Democratic members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denouncing Haiti's justice system as "a sham" and demanding the removal of interim Justice Minister Bernard Gousse. Four days later, Gousse resigned.

Gousse had been the most vocal proponent of prosecuting Neptune and other Aristide lieutenants accused of human rights abuses during their time in power. His departure spurred rumors that Neptune would be released.

U.S. Ambassador James B. Foley told Haitians in a radio interview that Washington wasn't trying to dictate what happened in Haiti. But he, like other Western envoys here, has publicly praised Neptune for his role in guiding Haiti through the first volatile weeks after Aristide fled.

Despite the renewed diplomatic pressure, much of it behind the scenes, Neptune has remained under detention in the pricey, if barren, villa. The only furniture in the gated upstairs salon that serves as his cell is a twin bed, which he eschews in favor of a narrow mat on the floor, where, bare-chested, he listens to music on a headset and maintains a journal of his treatment.

Human rights activists and those working with the interim government oppose releasing Neptune, although they concede that the justice system has deteriorated so profoundly that most of those jailed face months without legal representation or formal charges.

Pierre Esperance of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights points out that Haitian police still lack weapons and body armor that might allow them to penetrate the slums under the control of pro-Aristide gangs -- a prerequisite for gathering evidence against those arrested during violent protests.

Without evidence, he notes, prosecutors can't charge detainees, and as a result more than 90% of those behind bars are being held far beyond the 48-hour constitutional limit for arraignment.

"All the people in jail are in the same situation," said Daniele Magloire, one of seven members of the Council of Sages that chose Latortue and his interim Cabinet 15 months ago and now acts in an advisory capacity pending elections. "Neptune needs to be treated like any other citizen. He's a victim of the problems of this country."

She said the council considered it important to take the former prime minister to trial because it would send a signal to Haitians that they are all equal before the law. But Magloire predicted that Haiti's fractured justice system would be unable to convict Neptune.

"If they don't have proof, they can't convict someone of murder," she said of the St. Marc court that would have jurisdiction if Neptune were ever tried. "We don't have the tools we need for investigations."

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