PORT-AU-PRINCE — A judge will decide whether former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier will be tried on charges that include corruption and embezzlement for allegedly pilfering the treasury before his 1986 ouster, a lawyer for the ex-strongman said Tuesday.
A judge questioned the former dictator known as “Baby Doc” in an hours-long, closed-door court session, defense attorney Gervais Charles said. The decision to move toward a trial makes clear that whatever Duvalier’s reasons were for returning to Haiti on Sunday, the government is poised to take the opportunity to seek justice for his 15-year regime widely regarded as brutal and corrupt.
Charles said the case is now in the hands of a judge of instruction who will decide whether there is enough evidence to go to trial, a process that can take up to three months.
Several hundred Duvalier supporters gathered outside the court, burning tires, chanting slogans and calling for the arrest of President Rene Preval, then cheering as Duvalier left the courthouse and headed to his hotel under police escort.
Earlier, some supporters tried to block streets with overturned trash bins and rocks to keep police from taking Duvalier from his hotel to the courthouse.
There were no signs of widespread support for Duvalier, however. Demonstrations on his behalf have been relatively small by Haiti standards. More than half the nation’s people are too young to have lived through his government.
Haiti’s system allows for pretrial detention but Duvalier was allowed to remain free, though he cannot leave the country. His longtime companion Veronica Roy said Monday that Duvalier expected his trip from France, where he has lived in exile, would last three days.
“If he has to leave (the country), he will ask and he will leave,”Charles said. “As of now, he doesn’t even have a passport.”
Duvalier has been accused in the past in Haiti of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in public money and overseeing the torture and killing of political enemies. He was not in handcuffs as he arrived at the courthouse Tuesday with Roy nor was he handcuffed when he left.
His arrival Sunday was a surprise for a long-impoverished country and came as Haiti struggles to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election, as well as a cholera epidemic and a troubled recovery from the devastating earthquake of a year ago.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have urged the Haitian government to arrest Duvalier for widespread abuses. Amnesty International issued a statement praising what it called “the arrest” of Duvalier but said it was just a start.
“If true justice is to be done in Haiti, the Haitian authorities need to open a criminal investigation into Duvalier’s responsibility for the multitude of human rights abuses that were committed under his rule including torture, arbitrary detentions, rape, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions,” the group said.
Bobby Duval, a former soccer star who was starved and tortured during the 17 months he was held without charge by Duvalier in the notorious Fort Dimanche, was outraged that Haitian authorities didn’t immediately arrest the former dictator. He recalls seeing people beaten, tortured and executed by being clubbed in the back of the neck.
“He is a murderer and a thief,” said Duval, who now runs an athletics training school for children. “A country that has no memory will repeat its same mistakes. I thought we were past that but I guess not since he hasn’t been arrested yet.”
Fifty-six-year-old Chal Christen waved a flag of Duvalier’s political party – one he said he’d had stored away since the one-time “president for life” was deposed in a popular uprising and forced into exile nearly 25 years ago.
“We don’t have food, our houses collapsed, our children can’t go to school. It’s Preval that is the dictator,” Christen said. “We want Duvalier for president. Under him we ate well, we were safe.”
The country’s top prosecutor and a judge were among those who met with the former leader in the high-end hotel where he had been ensconced returning to Haiti.
Duvalier assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The father and son presided over one of the most brutal chapters in Haitian history, a period when a secret police force known as the Tonton Macoute tortured and killed opponents. The private militia of sunglasses-wearing thugs enforced the Duvalier dynasty’s absolute power and lived off extortion.
At Fort Dimanche, a fortress prison, Haitians were executed or died of malnutrition during the 1957-1986 Duvalier dictatorships. Ripples of pain and violence stemming from the Duvalier family’s dictatorship over 29 years still deeply scar many Haitians, including those who were forced into exile abroad.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Tuesday that Duvalier’s return increases the chance that he could be charged with atrocities committed during his 15-year rule because it will be easier to bring charges in the country where the crimes occurred.
He cautioned, though, that Haiti’s fragile judicial system may be in no position to mount a case.
Duvalier and his family spent years living in luxury on the French Riviera, driving fancy sports cars and staying in exclusive villas. Following financial difficulties, Duvalier moved to the Paris region in 1993. He allegedly lost a large part of his fortune when he was separated from his free-spending wife. The Duvalier clan has waged a long-running battle to retrieve at least $4.6 million frozen in a Swiss bank.
For most of his exile, the ex-despot was quiet. But in September 2007, Duvalier took to Haitian radio from abroad to apologize for “wrongs” committed under his rule and urged supporters to rally around his fringe political party.
A handful of loyalists campaigned to bring Duvalier home from exile, launching a foundation to improve the dictatorship’s image and reviving his political party in the hope that he could one day return to power democratically.
Associated Press writers Jacob Kushner in Port-au-Prince and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa. ARRESTED: Police officers take ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier out of his hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday Jan. 18, 2011. Haitian police took Duvalier, who abruptly returned to Haiti on Sunday, out of his hotel to a waiting SUV without saying whether he was being detained for crimes committed under his brutal regime.