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Fear and calls for justice follow return of 'Baby Doc'

The presence of the former Haitian dictator brings worries of more unrest. A spokesman says Jean-Claude Duvalier merely wants to see the earthquake damage to his beloved homeland.

January 18, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — His victims remember Baby Doc Duvalier. The long periods in hiding, friends who simply vanished, activists who went into the Fort Dimanche prison never to emerge, or to emerge as broken human beings.

In Duvalier's 15 years in power and during the regime of his father before him, as many as 30,000 Haitian civilians are believed to have been killed, countless others tortured, and hundreds of thousands forced into exile, human rights groups say. And the younger Duvalier is suspected of stealing up to $300 million from the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

And so the astonishing return Sunday of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier after nearly 25 years in exile has thrown Haiti into a tizzy, stoked fear of more unrest, and threatened to complicate efforts to choose a new president following an election eviscerated by fraud.

Duvalier's return could revive old battle lines and reopen wounds at a time of heightened political tension, several analysts said. Already, the cry has gone up for the return of Duvalier's archenemy, populist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Rival camps called for rallies Tuesday.

Duvalier flew Air France first class and reportedly used a diplomatic passport he somehow obtained in 2005 to enter Haiti. He said he wanted to help the country, which still is struggling to recover from last year's devastating earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people and left this capital in ruins.

On Monday, he was in an upscale hotel in the Petionville enclave above Port-au- Prince. Dozens of journalists gathered outside as a smattering of United Nations police agents stood guard. A self-declared spokesman, Henry Robert Sterlin, said Duvalier merely wanted to see for himself the damage to his homeland. There were rumors that he'd already booked a ticket back to France.

"He was deeply hurt in his soul after the earthquake," Sterlin told assembled reporters.

Several supporters and confidants strode up the hill to visit Duvalier.

"I've come to see the president," said 88-year-old Gabriel Agustin, a senior member of Duvalier's National Unity Party, which has been pressing for an attempted comeback into Haitian political life. "The name of Duvalier is a mystical name."

Duvalier's return has infuriated the many Haitians who fought the repressive regime and suffered the consequences.

Michele Montas, one of dozens of journalists jailed by Duvalier in the 1980s and now an official with the United Nations, said she would petition the Haitian prosecutor's office to charge Duvalier with an array of human rights and corruption crimes.

"It is outrageous," she said. "Something must be done in terms of accountability, in terms of impunity. He has to pay for what he has done."

Jean-Claude Bajeux is a professor and pro-democracy activist who was forced into exile by the elder Duvalier. Later, his 62-year-old mother and six other members of his family were put in Fort Dimanche and killed "to teach me a lesson," he said.

"Suppose you had no way to defend yourself in court, no protection, and you could be killed any time if the president decided it was convenient, or take your wife or your husband and all your property," Bajeux said. That was life under the Duvaliers.

Baby Doc's return "is not very good news for us," he said.

"It's another earthquake," added his wife, Sylvie. "This time a man-made one."

Human rights experts said that there are no charges pending against Duvalier but that the government could file them related to crimes against humanity and misappropriation of funds. Several organizations, including New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, demanded Duvalier be arrested and prosecuted.

There was no official word from the government of President Rene Preval on what it planned to do about Duvalier's presence. Any attempt to arrest him at this point might have violent repercussions.

"As an activist, as a feminist, as a Haitian, I say he can live in this country," Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said in an interview. "But he must be judged. All the prisoners, the people who died … must have justice."

But more than half of Haiti's population was not even born when Duvalier fled in 1986, and desperate times fuel hope for any form of salvation. Some pointed to the relative stability that accompanied the terror during the Duvalier years.

Several politicians took to the radio to say that if Duvalier was really here to help, and he didn't attempt to run for president, he should be allowed to remain and to work.

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