We take a look at the situation in Haiti where political violence and insecurity continues to rock the Caribbean nation. The interim government has come under fire for human rights abuses ever since assuming power last March. 700 political prisoners languish in Haitian jails and pro-democracy demonstrations are held in cities throughout the country.
This weekend, the London Observer reported that scores of prisoners were massacred during a prison riot earlier this month. According to official reports, prisoners in a three-story cell block called "Titanic" had rioted, breaking free from their cells, setting fire to mattresses and brandishing water pipes as weapons. Prison guards called in a special police unit to help put down the uprising. Officials later said that seven prisoners had been killed and more than 40 detainees and guards wounded.
But according to the London Observer, this is a gross understatement. Witnesses told the paper, the interim Haitian government is concealing a savage bloodbath in which up to 110 prisoners were killed by police and guards. At the time, Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting interim Haitian President Boniface Alexandre at the national palace.
One prisoner told the Observer police opened fire on the detainees, and then went from cell to cell, forcing prisoners into a passageway and methodically executing them.
Prisoners and police say the riot was motivated by the decision to transfer some detainees to another penitentiary, combined with growing frustration at the slow progress of their legal cases. Only 17 of around 1,100 prisoners at the national penitentiary have been convicted of a crime, and many detainees have not seen a judge.
The day before the prison massacre, Father Gerard Jean-Juste - perhaps Haiti's most famous political prisoner - was released after serving seven weeks in jail. No warrant for his arrest was ever produced, nor was any evidence linking him to any crime. Father Jean-Juste traveled to the U.S. this last week and gave a press conference in New York. He joins us in our firehouse studio. He are also joined by Tom Griffin, a human rights and immigration lawyer who recently traveled to Hatiti to document human rights abuses.
Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, Roman Catholic priest in Haiti who was recently released from prison.
Thomas Griffin, human rights and immigration lawyer who recently traveled to Haiti to document human rights abuses.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste traveled to the US this last week and held a news conference in New York. He joins us in our firehouse studio today, along with Tom Griffin, a human rights and immigration lawyer from Philadelphia, who went to Haiti to document human rights abuses. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Thank you very much.
THOMAS GRIFFIN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Well it's good to see you out of jail, Father Jean-Juste?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: I am happy and I am very thankful to everyone who has been involved directly or indirectly for this exercise of my human right to be free.
AMY GOODMAN: Why were you arrested?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: There was no motivation that I know that could stand, and I was [inaudible] why I was feeding hundreds of children and young adults. They told me that I am under arrest, while I was inside the rectory at the moment. I told them, no, according to the concord that -- the agreement between Haiti and the church, you cannot arrest me that way. I told them that. They refused to listen. They really grabbed me forcefully, and threw me into their vehicle, and ran away with me, arriving at the police station in Petionville, where I was in jail for over a week. And they told me that -- I saw them writing on the book, arrested for disturbing the public peace. That's what was written at the police station. But what was hurting me the most that day, why some of us in Haiti are trying to help the most desperate people, and they came, the police, the repressive forces from the government, from the de facto government, came and shot at our people. Three children have been shot, one girl and two boys. That's hurt so much. So, I hope that all of us who are trying to appease the communities, to appease the people, I think instead of brutalizing us, instead of arresting us arbitrarily, they could congratulate us for helping them, because I think that by feeding the people, by taking care of the children, by educating them, we are helping the government. We are helping. We are helping the country, and instead, the government is going after those providing basic human needs to the people. This is crazy.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the motivation of the government to have you silenced? You were in jail for seven weeks. What ultimately got you out?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: I went through the court system after a month staying in jail without seeing a judge, and the judge looked at the file, and thought it was frivolous. There was nothing. They said, hey, you have been accused of plotting against the government. I said what? Plotting against the government? Of the state, even worse. I said, what did I do? Where is the proof? There was no proof. I couldn't see any proof. At that time the judge said, hey, I have to order your release. The judge did order my release, and then the commissioner, the one who is responsible for signing -- approving the judge's decision and the commissioner stayed about two weeks before he -- it is supposed to take five days -- he stayed two weeks before accepting the reality that I should be free. So, finally, by November 29, I was freed, while I was arrested on October 13.
AMY GOODMAN: When you heard about what happened in the penitentiary right after you were released, what is your response?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: My response is this: the jails are too overcrowded. While I was at the main penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, there were -- that's a jail that's supposed to take 600 prisoners, and we were over 1,200, not to say 1,400. And it's too much, and detention is high within the jail, and that's the reason why right now Iâ€™m appealing to the de facto government to make a humanitarian gesture. Too many people, too many youngsters have been arbitrarily arrested, and forget -- they are being forgotten in jail. Do something. Release them during this holiday season. That's my appeal to them.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. When we come back, we'll continue speaking with Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste, and Thomas Griffin, who is a human rights and immigration lawyer from Philadelphia, who has recently returned from Haiti with some horrific photographs and documentation of what he saw there.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking about the situation in Haiti right now with Father Gerard Jean-Juste, usually in Haiti. Just came up to the United States for a week, was held in prison at the national penitentiary for seven weeks. There is now a report in the papers of a massacre that took place there on December 1, on the day that Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, was in Haiti visiting with the president. It was when President Bush was in Canada, meeting with the prime minister in Canada. One of the first issues they talked about, as well, was Haiti. We're also joined by Thomas Griffin, who is a human rights and immigration lawyer who has recently returned from Haiti. Thomas Griffin, can you talk about what you saw in Haiti, and what you documented?
THOMAS GRIFFIN: I tried to document as much as I could, just in Port-au-Prince, and my focus was mostly on the poor neighborhoods and that would be what normally are call the slum neighborhoods. That's where everyone lives in Port-au-Prince, which would be City Soleil, La Saline, Bel Air, and Ft. National. Those are the neighborhoods that have been under siege by the Haitian national police almost on a daily basis. And we had known that no reporters were going in. Either they were reluctant to do it or they were actually being blocked from getting in. My main goal was to get in there and document it and photograph what was happening, the violence by the Haitian national police backed by the U.N. civil police forces and the U.N. peacekeeping forces, which are two U.N. units that actually tear into the neighborhoods with their firearms and their tanks. I also tried to get into as many jails as I could, photograph prisoners and the conditions that they're in, and get a sense of whether they had seen a judge yet, or whether they had been beaten during the arrest or while they were in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Let's talk about the context here. I mean, you have President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ousted on February 29 in this bicentennial year of Haiti. He now is in exile with his wife and children in South Africa. And you have the U.S.-backed leader in place, Gerard Latortue. What is he doing about the situation? I also want to ask Father Jean-Juste about this.
THOMAS GRIFFIN: I had no sense that he was doing anything but maybe taking directions from outside. Both people in the government, when I was talking to government ministers, they were receiving calls from Canada during my interview of them, and they were complaining that Latortue wasn't strong enough, wasn't taking enough action. I have talked to big business leaders who you would think would be happy with Latortue who are very angry at him because he's not killing fast enough and heâ€™s not getting rid of this problem of the poor people demanding Aristide's return in a fast enough way. A third component is the army, which is coming back. General Ravix --
AMY GOODMAN: The Haitian army, which President Aristide had disbanded.
THOMAS GRIFFIN: In 1995. They're back. They're fully armed. They're marching. They're drilling every day right in Port-au-Prince, in the Petionville neighborhood where they're supported by rich residents and businessmen there, who provide them food, clothing, and a place to sleep. Theyâ€™re in a very big apartment building there during their drills. But General Ravix himself said he's upset at Latortue and during a conference with me in an interview, he said that he gave veiled threats that there might be another coup unless Latortue gets a little bit more heavy-handed with the insecurity problem.
AMY GOODMAN: What evidence did you have of U.S. involvement? I mean, President Aristide was very clear. We documented his trip back from the Central African Republic where he had been flown in a U.S. jet when he was put out of the country February 29. He said he was the victim of a modern-day kidnapping, in the service of a coup dâ€™etat backed by the United States. What about the U.S. presence in Haiti?
THOMAS GRIFFIN: I didn't go down there exactly to find that out, I was more documenting the human rights abuses. But in the course of my interviews, I was able to uncover that a U.S. foundation paid by U.S.A.I.D., known as IFES, which stands for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, had basically been in Haiti for almost -- since Aristide was re-elected in 2000, working to undermine the government by coalescing various sectors of society against him by what they called a sensitization program. They started with judges and lawyers, and their program, which was set up with seminars both in the United States and here, was to teach these groups that Aristide had co-opted the judicial system, that he was the reason for the corruption in the judicial system and the reason why people weren't being prosecuted that were committing human rights abuses. So they had sort of many tentacles that went out to different groups. They brought in the media, so that there was a campaign against Aristide in the media. They brought in human rights groups and actually set up a hotline at one of the human rights groups to take only complaints about pro-Aristide violence and that was then publicized in the media, that they had co-opted, and also at the U.S. embassy in and other agencies. So, and that group ultimately, after a couple of years of work, formed what is known as the group of 184, and that became the main opposition force politically in -- for Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
AMY GOODMAN: Who heads up IFES?
THOMAS GRIFFIN: In the United States, I believe the chairman of the board of directors is a man named Richard Hybl; in Haiti it's a man named Amami Sola* that controls all the programs down there.
AMY GOODMAN: And Richard Hybl, what are his connections?
THOMAS GRIFFIN: I don't know much. I just did a quick search of his name when I came back from my investigation, and I cannot remember everything. I know he sits on another board of International Republican Institute known as IRI, who has been notorious for trying to undo the Aristide government both, I believe, in the -- during the first coup in 1991 as well as this one.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste, what about these connections?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: I am really sad to see that so many right wing element within the President Bush administration had participated in the coup dâ€™etat against President Aristide on February 29. Also for me having lived in the U.S. for many years where many of us in this country are calling for respect, for democracy, put into practice the principal of democracy, I think it's really very sad to see that in Haiti, while we're trying to make a democracy to take place, we're calling for education of the people. Here we are, and some right wing elements who dislike our President Aristide, and they plot against him, they support of some groups of people, and to go against the will of the people in Haiti and the start our democracy that was an infant at that time. So, I'm calling upon them. It's not too late now to change. It's not too late now to correct the wrong they have done to this black nation. So, I hope that in this second term, President Aristide could come back to Haiti and finish his mandate. His mandate will end by February 7, 2006. So, if we keep acting that way, every time we have an elected official, an elected president, and some other country may not like the president and decide to plot against the president, and get rid of him, so we are killing the democracy everywhere. Killing it in Haiti, it's been that are you killing the democracy in the United States of America, because right now what is happening. Whatever you see take place in any corner of the world can be repeated in any other corner of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: In the first coup against President Aristide, when he was first ousted in 1991, to 1994, it turned out the U.S. was very much involved with this. Alan Nairn writing in The Nation magazine exposed the C.I.A./D.I.A. funding for the head of FRAPH, the paramilitary death squad responsible for so many deaths, Emmanuel Constant, on the payroll of the D.I.A. This was a time when the C.I.A. was headed by James Woolsey. It's one of the things that brought him down as director of central intelligence at the time. Now he had been a fierce proponent actually for the invasion of Iraq, James Woolsey. And this is rarely raised about him. But what about why the U.S. continues to be involved in this way?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Understand the first coup was taken also under a Republican administration, then the Democratic administration was followed, and they corrected it. And that's now I don't see how they're going to correct it, because we have a Republican administration being followed by same elements, unless there is some change. But I hope that these officials now who now could look. Look what they have done to Haiti, it is broken into pieces. Now we have to collect the pieces, and allow the people to come together, and I don't see any way now unless President Aristide is restored to power and democracy has been corrected. The same way we do it in 1994.
AMY GOODMAN: The Prime minister, Yvon Neptune, remains in jail?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Yes indeed. The legal prime minister is in jail while the illegal one, the de-facto one, the imposed one, is the one running around and dividing the Haitian society, and being very rude in his speeches.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the U.N. doing about this, with the U.N. forces also in Haiti, led by the Brazilians?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: That's another point. Where the U.N. is supposed to be a respectable institution, international institution, and in that case, we find the U.N. on the side of the repressive government, and the people cannot understand it at all.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you find in Haiti with the U.N. forces, what are known as the blue helmets?
THOMAS GRIFFIN: Right. There's two groups of U.N. forces there. One is the civilian police, and they're basically police officers from all over the world, who wear their local uniforms, but put on a blue basketball hat not a helmet, usually, unless there's an operation going on. And they shadow the police. Their job is to go down there and provide support and observe them and correct them if they're doing something wrong. That's not happening with them. The other force is the peacekeeping force that goes around in big tanks, which they call armored personnel vehicles. They have mounted automatic firearms on the top of the tank, and you will see the heads, the blue helmets, sticking out and everyone has got firearms. What they do is sort of piggyback and protect the police but they legitimize them. What you have is one of the worst police forces in the world probably untrained and very scared, and whatever they do, the U.N. is just backing them up. So the U.N. is shooting a lot of people because the Haitian police are shooting a lot of people. It has really become a big mess. I talked to one of the civilian police chiefs in Bel Air and he said I came down here to coach, to train, and to observe. He said, all I'm doing is participating in guerrilla warfare every day. I'm scared and where are the reporters? So, it's a mess, and it's sort of covered up because the U.N.'s down there, but I don't see them doing a very good job.
AMY GOODMAN: You spent time at the morgue.
THOMAS GRIFFIN: Yeah. I snuck into the morgue. They're not letting people into the morgue anymore. Because the bodies have been piling up so much. And so many human rights observers have been seeing the bodies. They don't let people into the morgue. The second part of it is, I talked to some morgue workers, and they said that the police are now even skipping the morgue phase. So when there is what they call an operation in one of the poor neighborhoods and there's a lot of bodies, the police just take the bodies and instead of dumping them at the morgue, bring them to the morgue only to get dump truck, which they load up with the bodies and they head off to a secret burial ground which hasn't been discovered yet.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste, what do the people say about this in Haiti, and what is their feeling about the United States, about the U.N.?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Not toward, the feeling is not directed toward the United States, because people in Haiti, they have many Haitian-Americans who live here, and they are friendly to many U.S. citizens, and there is a great relationship growing between the people, the U.S. people, and Haiti people. What is wrong, what we understand is wrong is to see that some elements of the Republican administration conducting illegal activities by destroying democracy in a black nation. The things they're doing in Haiti, they won't do in the United States. There would be outrage in the United States by doing what they're doing in the Haiti.
AMY GOODMAN: What was U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell doing in Haiti?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: He visited Haiti, and we have left with the impression that he's strongly backing up the repressive system, the de-facto, the unconstitutional, the illegal government that is now running Haiti.
AMY GOODMAN: When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was flying back, had been brought back by this U.S. delegation led by Congress member Maxine Waters from the Central African Republic, going at that time to Jamaica where the Prime minister had invited him to stay until he decided his next move, ultimately he went to South Africa. As we were flying over the Atlantic, we were documenting this trip, President Aristide was talking about the situation, and as we flew into Barbados and ultimately to Jamaica, we heard that Colin Powell, that Condoleezza Rice, that they were threatening, and Rumsfeld as well, that Aristide was not to return to the western hemisphere, that the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Foley, was saying that Aristide was not to come within 150 miles of Haiti. Why?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: This is what I cannot understand. One official, some official, will decide for a nation, and we are talking about democracy in the United States. Can we accept that in the United States? That two or three individuals take a decision and impose the one thing to the people, and make us suffer, and -- for people in the United States not it react? I think that this is abuse of power from some officials of the United States. They are abusing the power and repressing this black nation, and why are we trying to educate people about education, they should come for our help. They should support us in that direction, as we are trying to be free to enjoy democracy, to make the democracy better for all people, and then there we go no, we should stop that.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel Aristide supporter like yourself are being targeted?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Yes. We are not only targeted, we are being chased. We are being chased. And in the jail over half of the population are arbitrarily arrested, and kept in jail, and most of them are Aristide supporters. One day I witnessed why a bloodbath took place. There are about -- I counted at least 12 broken heads. 12 broken heads by my cell. By my cell. You should see the [inaudible] was covered for about many meters, and then among them there was a very young man, a great artist from Bel Air, and he composed two beautiful songs while was in jail. I said, what happened to you? How come they beat you so badly. He said, because I composed this song, these songs are in favor of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. I still recognize him as the president and they beat him that badly and broke his head. And fractured some of his limbs.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think now needs to be done?
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: What is to be done now is for the U.S. government and for the so-called friends -- the French government and Canadian government to correct the wrongdoing they have done to the Haitian people. Look at it now. Haiti is not -- there is no life. There is no life. People are starving, and we cannot help them. Those of us who can find help to provide, it's very difficult. I was Aristide and I am lucky to get freed. There are many others like me who have been helping the Haitians, particularly the poorest ones, the children and some elderly. These people are still in jail. I have a very good friend I met in jail. He was in Bel Air, known Nono. Nono is a mechanic man, helping people in trade. Helping the young people in other areas. They come in our city because he is helping. That's the way it is. We met many of the persons, great men in Haiti, great citizens who have been helping, and they are now perishing. They are now languishing in jails.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Gerard Jean-Juste, I want to thank you very much for being with us, as well Thomas Griffin, human rights and immigration lawyer. We will post the pictures on the website, some we have shown on the TV broadcast of the show. Others we will just place there for people to see. I want to thank you both for --
THOMAS GRIFFIN: Thank you very much.
REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Thank you for your support. Thank you. Thank you, everyone.