Lawyers Leadership Network | Human Right Reports
Massacre in the National Penitentiary - Death Watch for Human
Rights in Haiti
by Bill Quigley, Published on Counterpunch.org,
Dec. 23, 2004
degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering
its prisons." Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
More evidence of the death of human rights in Haiti has been
unfolding this month as additional information comes out about the
December 1, 2004 massacre in the Haitian National Penitentiary. The
most recent troubling news is contained in a detailed investigation
into the massacre conducted by the respected
Institute for Justice
and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). www.ijdh.org
The IJDH report confirms the deteriorating condition of Haiti's
prisons in the face of dramatic increases in the number of Haitians
who have been imprisoned without trials. The report concludes with
reports that many more prisoners in the Haitian National Penitentiary
may have been murdered earlier this month than the government admits
- some eyewitnesses estimate dozens of prisoners were killed.
Haitian officials initially reported that seven prisoners were killed
and dozens more shot by guards in the course of putting down a prison
protest at the penitentiary. Officials have refused to give out an
official list with the names of the persons killed either to the
public or to family members. No independent investigation into the
killings has been allowed.
The IJDH report is the most comprehensive investigation of the prison
situation to date. One eyewitness testified that he saw the bodies
20 to 25 dead prisoners. Another guessed that he saw more than 60
IJDH'"Üdes that "for most of the dead, their assassination
last in a long string of human rights violations. Only one in fifty
is likely to have actually been convicted of committing a crime. The
vast majority were likely arrested illegally without a warrant and
detained on vague charges with no evidence in their file and no
chance of judicial review of the detention."
During the forced removal of the elected President of Haiti, Jean
Bertrand Aristide, the jails and prisons of Haiti were emptied. The
unelected government has been filling them up with people associated
with Aristide. In fact, the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace
Commission estimates that there may be as many as 700 political
prisoners in Haiti.
My own recent experience in Haiti bears this out. I have been in the
Haitian National Penitentiary several times in the past four months.
It is a massive old concrete prison located right in the heart of
downtown Port au Prince.
It was there that I visited with Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and
Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert in their cells. I visited
Harold Severe, the former Mayor of Port au Prince, in the prison
yard. I met with my client, Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, several times in
the warden's office. The conditions in the prison are very bad. And
there are many, many people there who have never seen, and likely
never will see, a judge.
I have witnessed the prison population grow more than 20% in my short
time in Haiti. When I first visited the penitentiary, in late
September of this year, there were 868 people in the prison, 21 of
whom had been convicted of a crime. Prison officials advised me that
"most had never seen a judge and do not know when they will see
judge." (See full report of Pax
Christi USA Fall 2004 Human Rights
Visit to Haiti at www.paxchristiusa.org ). In early December,
weeks later, the penitentiary held 1041 people, 22
of whom had seen a
This situation is not a surprise to international authorities. In
late November, the UN Security Council expressed its concerns about
arbitrary arrests and detentions in Haiti and called for the release
of political prisoners. In November 2004, the United Nations official
in charge of helping reform Haiti's prisons quit his job in
frustration. "It was worse than I have ever seen," UN official
Jacques Dyotte told Reed Lindsay of the Toronto Sun. The paper
reported that floor space so tight that prisoners must take turns
sleeping in shifts.
The IJDH report calls for an independent investigation by the United
Nations that includes: autopsies of all prisoners killed; forensic
medical exams of all injured prisoners and guards; independent
interviews with prisoners and guards that include confidentiality
protections for all those who seek it; examination of all records
the incident. Human rights groups and journalists should be given
access to this material.
Right now in Haiti there are many prison cells holding over 20
prisoners. Many of these same cells have no beds and no toilets. The
people in those cells have little chance of ever seeing a judge.
Right now there are hundreds of families in Haiti who do not even
know if family members in the national penitentiary are dead or alive.
The IJDH is correct, when it concludes in the final sentence of their
investigation: "An effective investigation of the December 1
becomes, therefore, not a test of investigative skill and resources
as much as a test of investigative will."
These prisoners and their conditions are not hidden. Many are out
the open. The United Nations knows about them. The Organization of
American States knows about them. The United States government knows
Human rights are dying in Haiti, who will do more than watch?
Dostoevsky's quote above that "the degree of civilization in
society can be judged by entering its prisons" is not an indictment
of Haiti only. Dostoevksy is also speaking to the UN, the OAS, and
our government in the US, and ultimately to us.
(For a complete copy of the report on the Massacre at the Haitian
National Penitentiary go to the website of the Institute
for Justice and Democracy in Haiti www.ijdh.org ).
Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans School
of Law, has visited Haiti four times in the last three months as one
attorneys representing the recently freed Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste.