Long Wait for Freedom

The fight to liberate Haitian political prisoners

haiti S.jpg Collective of Family and Friends of Political Prisoners hold vigil every day to call for the release of Haitian political prisoners. Photo: Christoper Scott

By Christopher Scott

Every Tuesday morning in Port-au-Prince, pedestrians and on-lookers are treated to a well-worn ritual. In front of the Ministry of Justice, about thirty women and men arrive punctually at 10am. They unfurl their banners, stand to attention for the national anthem, and over the next two hours proceed to dance, sing and recite the names of friends, colleagues or loved ones: detained and mostly forgotten inside Haiti’s jails.

The group, the Collective of Family and Friends of Political Prisoners, represents activists arrested under the regime of Gerald Latortue, who was installed by a coup in 2004 and ruled Haiti until elections in 2006. Despite a return to democracy, current President René Preval is constrained by a right-wing opposition and by the presence of UN “peacekeepers” who view the popular movement with suspicion. Observers believe that under these circumstances it would be difficult for Preval to make a blanket move to free detainees.

“We have to add pressure,” says protester Lewinsky Pierre-Antoine. He estimates there are a thousand political detainees in Haiti today. The collective members are quick to denounce the punitive conditions in which inmates are held, with inadequate access to food and medicine. Adult relatives are allowed to visit prisoners once a week for fifteen minutes. Children are barred.

The process leading to these mass arrests was set in motion in February 2004, when an alliance of former soldiers and business interests overthrew social democratic President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Telejournalist Michaëlle LaFrance recalls the climate of fear and violence which typified the weeks preceding Aristide’s ouster, during which she was beaten by a group of anti-government protesters while covering a demo.

After rebels entered the capital, everyone and anyone associated with Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party became a target. During those days the names of wanted persons were read on the radio.

“The police came to my house. They took everything I had in the house,” confides LaFrance. Denounced by a neighbour, the young woman, then 24, was taken to the local lock-up. “I wrote on the wall ‘God help me,’” she says. “I thought two things: either they’d kill me, or I’d be out in a few years.”

For LaFrance, events took an unexpected turn for the better when an uncle found her and negotiated her release three days after her capture. But arrests continued, as raids conducted by cops or paramilitaries targeted predominantly poor neighbourhoods. Charges were typically vague, such as “incitement to violence,” or else unproven. Human rights lawyer Evel Fanfan concludes that close to six thousand people were detained for their political affiliation in Port-au-Prince during the month of March 2004 alone.

Arrested on March 1, 2004 while leaving a party meeting, Fanmi Lavalas member and ex-parliamentarian Amanus Maette was imprisoned until April of this year, when pressure from a Haitian lawyer won his release. Maette was accused of participation in political violence, charges he denies and was never tried for.

“The majority of those detained in the National Penitentiary are members of Fanmi Lavalas,” notes Maette in a press release. “These are political prisoners. They have absolutely no connection with the charges that are laid against them.”

Officially, most of the activists held at the National Penitentiary are in pre-trial detention. But as administrative delays lengthen the pre-trial period into months and years, critics wonder whether the strategy is not simply to neutralize political organizers for as long as possible.

Politically, Haiti is at a juncture, as the forces of social democracy and conservatism battle to define the direction the country’s economy will take. It would be tempting for conservatives, who feel threatened by movements that emphasize education and rural empowerment, to resort to political imprisonment to get their way. Such a tactic is hardly without precedent in Haitian history. But as the republic navigates a globalized century, the consequences will be more visible, and increasingly dire.

Chris Scott is a Montreal writer-activist with an interest in languages and North-South issues. He recently returned from a four-week visit to Haiti.

For more on Canada's role in Haiti, visit http://www.canadahaitiaction.ca/