Haiti’s ‘Baby Doc’ answers questions in hearing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 March, 2013, 9:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 March, 2013, 9:37am

Former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier appeared in a Haitian court for the first time Thursday after repeatedly shunning previous summons, answering questions on whether he should be charged with human rights abuses during his brutal 1971-1986 regime.

Activists and opponents applauded as they saw the former ruler known as “Baby Doc” arrive for the hearing wearing a navy blue suit and gray tie, and sit facing the three-judge panel. Near him sat his defence attorneys and his longtime partner, who did not remove her sunglasses during the proceedings.

The session “is an important victory for Duvalier’s victims, who never gave up hope of seeing him in court, and for the Haitian people who have the right to know what happened during the dark years of the Duvalier dictatorship,” said Reed Brody, counsel and a spokesman for Human Rights Watch.

The former president-for-life had ignored three previous summons and only showed up Thursday after a judge warned that he would be jailed if he shunned a fourth.

Several dozen supporters of Duvalier cheered in the courtroom as the former president-for-life entered.

The hearing began with arguments over legal proceedings, with Duvalier’s defence attorneys initially requesting a closed-door hearing. Attorneys for the plaintiffs asked Duvalier to speak into a microphone but he refused, and the judge accepted.

Instead of speaking to the court, Duvalier mumbled his responses to a bailiff who sat his side and recorded them in a ledger book. Then the bailiff read the answers aloud in French to the judges.

“I have a positive record and this is in all areas,” Duvalier told the court.

The judges also asked him about political prisoners who were locked up and tortured under his regime. They also asked him about a prominent journalist who went into exile.

The steamy courtroom was packed with journalists, observers and Duvalier supporters. The crowd, however, remained quiet overall, though the absence of a speaker system made it difficult to hear court discussions.

Thousands were imprisoned, tortured or killed for opposing Duvalier’s regime. He was ousted in a popular revolt.

Duvalier surprised the world by returning to Haiti in early 2011 after spending 25 years in exile. While in exile, Duvalier remained quiet except for a September 2007 radio address in which he apologised for wrongs committed under his rule and urged supporters to rally around his fringe political party.

The Duvalier case seemed to have vanished until it went before Haiti’s Court of Appeal in January. A lower court judge ruled in January last year that Duvalier should only face charges on alleged financial crimes.