Disturbing the Peace
November 08, 2004
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Disturbing the Peace

by Brian Concannon

On Wednesday and Friday afternoons, hundreds of poor children find their only meal of the day at Haiti's Sainte Claire's Catholic Church. On Wednesday October 13, they were joined by masked and heavily armed police who handcuffed their pastor, Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, and dragged him out through a window and off to a police station. The police did not show the warrant required by Haiti's Constitution, nor was Fr. Jean-Juste brought before a judge within 48 hours as the law requires.

Fr. Jean-Juste, known in the U.S. as "Fr. Gerry", has spent a quarter-century preaching non-violence and fighting against illegal arrests and other injustice, in Haiti and in the U.S. He was ordained in America, but felt compelled to return to Haiti to face the injustice of "Baby-Doc" Jean-Claude Duvalier's regime. He was soon forced out of Haiti, and spent several years in Boston, working in local parishes and studying at Northeastern University. In the late 1970's he started fighting in the courts: he won a lawsuit against Duvalier in Miami Federal Court, and he co-founded Florida's Haitian Refugee Center, which helped thousands of refugees and challenged unjust immigration policies all the way to the Supreme Court.

Fr. Jean-Juste returned to Haiti, with lessons from America about non-violent political organizing and fighting injustice through the courts. During Haiti's nine years of elected government (1994-2004), he worked with victims of past dictatorships to channel their anger into lawsuits. He spoke out forcefully and eloquently against all kinds of violence, whether perpetrated by the Constitutional government's opponents or by its supporters, from the pulpit and from the microphone of his popular radio show. In one particularly memorable moment, when opposition political party offices were attacked after Jean Dominique's April 2000 funeral, Fr. Gerry talked on the radio for two hours straight, imploring everyone to go home, calm down, and learn to fight without violence.

Fr. Jean-Juste continued to stand up for justice after the unconstitutional interim regime replaced Haiti's elected government last February. Although friends and relatives told him to go into hiding, he refused to leave his parish work. Nor did he let fear prevent him from denouncing human rights violations in the Haitian and international press. He was the only summoned witness who dared appear in the August 16 trial for the killing of pro-democracy activist Antoine Izmery. Everyone knew the trial was a fraud- Amnesty International called it "an insult to justice" - and Fr. Jerry knew he risked arrest at the courthouse. But he could not ignore a judicial order, so he showed up at trial.

Haiti's Minister of Justice, Bernard Gousse, alleges that Fr. Jean-Juste associates with people engaged in violence. The Prime Minister, Gérard Latortue claims there was a warrant. But both made their case in press interviews, not legal proceedings. The police register lists his crime as "disturbing the peace", which carries a maximum sentence of four days in prison and 17 gourdes fine (about 50 cents). If the government really believes Fr. Jean-Juste is arming the hungry as well as feeding them, they should be willing to test that belief in court.

If past is prologue, Fr. Jean-Juste will have a long wait for his day in court. He joins a long line of political prisoners arrested since March, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, Senator Yvon Feuillé (who is entitled to parliamentary immunity), former Deputy Rudy Hérivaux, a teacher, two musicians, nine union leaders and a host of former officials. All have been accused of a connection to violence in press conferences, but only one has been permitted to challenge his detention in court. When that one, local official Jacques Mathelier, went to court on July 12, the judge ordered his immediate liberation. Prison officials gave him an immediate transfer out of that judge's jurisdiction and he remains in jail.

The prominent political prisoners may be the lucky ones. Hundreds of men and women too poor to be noticed by the outside world rot anonymously behind bars, and hundreds more have been killed by Haiti's police or their paramilitary allies, in Bel Air, Cite Soleil, Martissant and Fort National. As Fr. Jean-Juste knows too well, the interim regime's violence is begetting more violence. When people see their neighbors arrested illegally or executed in broad daylight, they become scared, angry and desperate. When the non-violent leaders are violently arrested and thrown in prison, their calls for peaceful resistance become unconvincing.

The United States, Prime Minister Latortue's principal international patron, is well-placed to rein in these abuses, and should use its leverage to pry the political prisons open. The State Department did scold Haiti's authorities after July's arrest of Yvon Neptune and August's sham trial, but it was more bark than bite. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega declared that "sooner rather than later the authorities in Haiti are going to have to give Neptune an opportunity to defend himself before an independent judge.'' That was July 17- three days later the U.S. pledged $230 million to the authorities in Haiti, three months later Neptune has not seen the judge who issued his arrest warrant.

The police at Sainte Claire's may have given the most honest explanation for the arrest: they said Fr. Jean-Juste was accused of "troubling the public order." When "public order" means widespread violence, political arrests reminiscent of the Duvalier era and hunger unprecedented in modern times, Fr. Gerry's preaching peace, working for justice and feeding children may indeed make him guilty as charged.

Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. is the Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org. The Institute's Lawyers in Haiti are representing Fr. Jean-Juste.

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