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Baby Doc arrested. But will he be tried for all his crimes?

In the span of a mere 48 hours, Haiti’s former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has returned to the troubled island from exile in Paris and been arrested in Port au Prince. France24 reported this afternoon that he had been indicted for theft, corruption, and misallocation of funds. But those would be just a few ...

Allison Shelley/Getty Images
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

In the span of a mere 48 hours, Haiti’s former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has returned to the troubled island from exile in Paris and been arrested in Port au Prince. France24 reported this afternoon that he had been indicted for theft, corruption, and misallocation of funds. But those would be just a few of many crimes  Duvalier is accused of committing during his 15 years in office, from 1971 to 1986.

"If he is going to be put on trial, he should be put on trial [for] all the human rights violations," Javier Zuñiga, special advisor to Amnesty International, told me by phone. "I think it will be travesty of justice if [he is tried for] only corruption, and not the extensive torture and disappearances."

Like most dictators, Duvalier took power promising to change the country’s old, repressive ways. When he became president at age 19, Duvalier was trying to clean up the fallout from his father’s messy regime.

Francois Duvalier, a medical doctor turned autocrat nicknamed Papa Doc, had presided over a literal reign of terror from 1956 to 1971. The army and the police ran the state and opponents — or perceived opponents — were jailed and tortured. The press was shut down and the economy tanked. Taking full advantage of U.S. fears of nearby communist Cuba, Papa Doc convinced Washington to look the other way. With his personal militia, the Tontons Macoutes — named for a traditional Haitian boogeyman — haunting the streets, Duvalier père had little fear that his crimes would come back to haunt him, as well.

Baby Doc, as Jean-Claude was called, promised to do better. The young leader was considered "an overweight playboy of little intelligence" when he assumed power. And he did, sort of, relax a few laws. Press freedom, for example, moderately improved. But he turned out to be a cut off the old block.

Baby Doc stretched his hands over the entire country by instituting a system of prefects, or regional governors, who were answerable only to him. They carried out his political whims, everything from assassination to arrests to intimidation. Overall, between 40,000 and 60,000 people are thought to have died under the two Duvaliers, father and son.

Life under the Duvaliers revolved around the state’s security apparatus — the army and the police. "Nobody was safe and nobody had any recourse if he or she was arrested," recalls Zuñiga, who worked in the country during the Baby Doc years. He describes the victims of torture and arrest that he saw firsthand-near-paralyzed from abuse, or sick and dying from gangrene after their wounds went untreated. "It really was hell." One particularly nasty locale during the Baby Doc years was Fort Dimanche, an infamous prison outside the capital, "where people were regularly tortured and conditions were very bad," Human Rights Watch lawyer Reed Brody explained by phone from Brussels.

And if you escaped the fate of intimidation, you were also likely to be poor. Very little economic development took place during that time, says Zuñiga; social services were "almost nonexistent." Thousands more fled Haiti-the first wave of "boat people" to the United States.

Then there was the money that Jean-Claude Duvalier stashed away. Several million dollars of the Duvalier fortune were frozen in Switzerland, meant to be returned home, though the verdict was later overturned. A case in the U.S. court system also found Baby Doc liable for $500 million of misspent funds. (In a bit of twist, the former president’s widow took much of his fortune when she divorced him in 1992, and Duvalier has bounced around semi-destitute in recent years.)

Human rights advocates hope that Duvalier will now be prosecuted for his numerous crimes. "The strongest case in legal terms is the embezzlement," says Brian Concannon, Jr. of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. "For financial crimes, if you’ve got documentation, they’re easy to prove. [And in this case, we] literally have boxes and boxes of evidence."

The human rights abuses will certainly prove more challenging. There has never been a systematic investigation into what happened during the Baby Doc years, and what few attempts have reached courts in the past two decades have met obstacles like statute limits. A case in Paris, for example, was dismissed because the crimes took place before the country’s relevant laws were in place. "Duvalier himself was not doing the shooting and torturing," adding another complication, says Concannon. "But it shouldn’t be that difficult to piece together."

So Haiti waits, as do many of the exiles and victims who remember life under Baby Doc like it was yesterday."Our country, I will say again, was done wrong by his trickery and repression, still today, unpardonable actions," wrote the 82-year-old Haitian poet Gerald Bloncourt, chairman of an exile group that has advocated to put Duvalier on trial for over a decade, on his blog on Jan. 17.

Speaking of Duvalier’s return, he beseeched, "I call upon all those who share [our concerns] to rise and denounce this latest attack on our ‘Human Rights,’ [i.e. Duvalier’s return] — this new and colossal contempt for the Haitian people." 

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