Monday, March 14, 2011

Note to the Corbett List

I confess some surprise that a single article of mine on Haiti’s former president has sparked such debate as the country confronts its first presidential vote in five years, a vote during which neither Mr. Aristide or any member of the interim government that followed him are candidates. But perhaps in the long run it is useful as it seems to be sparking a needed re-examination on some important aspects of Haiti’s recent history. If such examination would help even in the smallest way for the people of St. Marc who still wait for justice to achieve their aim, then it will have been mightily worth it.

1. Further on St. Marc

It is easy for those who were not in Haiti at the time to mock and dismiss the wrenching first-hand accounts of the survivors of the February 2004 Aristide government assault on St. Marc, or the first-hand accounts of journalists such as myself and the Miami Herald’s Marika Lynch who visited the town shortly thereafter. But one is reminded one of the sage words of the British academic Stephen Ellis who, when describing the incredulity that some ascribed to accounts of Liberia's civil war, wrote that "while descriptions (of the civil war) are routinely dismissed as sensational journalism by high-minded academics, it would be foolish simply to scoff at the opinions of correspondents who glean their impressions at first hand. Journalists acquire detailed knowledge, and an appreciation for the flavor of events, which can escape distant observers."

Simply put, the hypothesis that the reporting of many journalists, local and foreign, in Haiti at the time, the testimony of dozens of witnesses, the research of both Human Rights Watch and the Reseau National de Defense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), all working autonomously, is all part of a seamless, coordinated conspiracy is not a hypothesis that can be accepted by any rational person.

The best quote I’ve ever heard about Haiti’s justice system came from RNDDH’s director Pierre Esperance, who said to me, in connection that the to St. Marc case, that “in our system, the criminal becomes a victim because the system doesn't work.” That is what we saw with relation to the St. Marc massacre. Rather than having a transparent trial to hold the perpetrators accountable, they were sent to sit in jail without any conclusion to the official investigation, like almost every other high-profile case in the country’s history.

A word in defense of the RNDDH, an organization that I have seen do the most important human rights advocacy in Haiti, both in its present incarnation and as the Haiti-branch of the NCHR, since I first began visiting Haiti now nearly 15 years ago.

Though their critics like to bray about RNDDH’s 2004 award of C$100,000 (US$85,382) from the Canadian International Development Agency, most of the group’s funding in fact comes from organizations such as Christian Aid, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Lutheran World Federation. As part of its vitally important work, since that grant, RNDDH has consistently advocated for justice on behalf of a number of Fanmi Lavalas members who it says were victimized under Haiti’s 2004-2006 interim government, including Jean Maxon Guerrier, Yvon Feuille, Gerald Gilles, and Rudy Heriveaux.

RNDDH has shown a commitment to a non-political defense of human rights that a group like the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), under the sway as it is of Mr. Aristide's Miami attorney Ira Kurzban (one of the IJDH’s founders and chairman of its board of directors), or the IJDH’s Haiti partner, the the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), which receives “most of its support from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti,” have never risen to.

[With the IJDH’s 2005 annual report listing Mr. Kurzban’s law firm in the category reserved for those having contributed more than $5000 to the organization, the group’s 2006 report lists the firm under “Donations of Time and Talent,” and the American Immigration Lawyers Association South Florida Chapter (for which Mr. Kurzban served as past national president and former general council) in a section reserved for those having donated $10,000 or more. Simply put, the IJDH is a creature of Mr. Aristide’s attorney, a man who has a financial stake in rehabilitating the former president. Their work in Haiti should be seen in this context.]

I would like to give the last word on the St. Marc killings to Charlienor Thompson, the coordinator of the Association des Victimes du Genocide de la Scierie (AVIGES), whose feelings of abandonment by the international community in general and the United Nations in particular were summed-up in a heart-rending 2007 open letter to Louis Joinet, the United Nations' independent expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti at the time. In that letter, Thompson wrote of how “we, the victims, who live in Haiti and who have lodged a complaint with the judicial system of our country for more than three years, remain confused and ask ourselves who cares about our case?"

Thompson goes on to ask:

How can we expect justice? Who can testify freely while murderers are free and move with impunity? The majority of people in Saint Marc are afraid. Even those who were direct victims of the acts mentioned above are frightened. The victims are eager to flee the city and witnesses to hide. When will we enjoy the benefits of justice that we demand? In the present circumstances, in what form will it come?

2. Further on Martissant

As happened with regards to the killing of St. Marc, a handful of advocates for Haiti’s former president living in North America have made it their goal to attempt to deceive people that violence in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant came only from one side, that of forces hostile to Haiti’s former president. They seek to convince people, despite the evidence gathered by Haiti’s own journalists and foreign reporters such as myself, that gangs formerly allied to Haiti’s former president did not play an enthusiastic and blood-soaked role in the killings there. Put simply, this is false.

Consider the following:

- A 23 August 2005 broadcast from the capital’s Radio Kiskeya stated "inhabitants of various districts of Martissant (a southern slum of Port-au-Prince) launched an S.O.S to the authorities on Monday so that they would forcefully intervene in a zone infested with heavily-armed gangsters. These inhabitants, the majority of them young people coming from 4th and the 5th Avenue Bolosse, describe the reactivation in the district of groups armed under the regime of Jean Bertrand Aristide which have made their residence in the Grand Ravine zone of Martissant."

- The 19 November 2005 article "Nouvelle montee de tension a Martissant" from the Haitian media outlet AlterPresse stated "The tension went up of a notch these last days within Martissant, in the southern sector of the capital, where confrontations have occurred between rival bands, residents told AlterPresse. Clashes have occurred on several occasions during the last 8 days between the armed bands from Grande Ravine and the Lame Ti Manchet, leaving at least 2 dead and several casualties by bullets."

- A 6 November 2006 statement by the president of Haiti’s senate, Joseph Lambert, himself a member of the Lespwa party of Haitian president Rene Preval, where Lambert directly referred to the violence in Martissant as being part of "Operation Baghdad II," in reference to a fall 2004 explosion of violence by Aristide partisans, and went on to say that "Operation Baghdad 2 takes the form of a means for a sector to politically pressure the executive (branch) in order to find employment." [Note: Despite statements to the contrary, Operation Baghdad was called just that by those carrying it out, as can be heard in this 2004 report from National Public Radio's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro]

- A 4 December 2006 broadcast from Radio Kiskeya which stated that "according to residents (of Martissant) a local gang called Base Pilate was responsible for four murders. The leaders of this armed group are insane with rage after the death of a police officer considered to be one of their allies...The Base Pilate is committed, under the umbrella of the armed gangs of Grand Ravine, to fight without mercy against the Lame Ti Manchet, another rival band based within Sainte-Bernadette lane."

- An 8 December 2006 broadcast, again recorded on the ground in Martissant, from Radio Metropole, stated "Heavy shooting was recorded in the zone of Martissant yesterday ; witnesses confirm that gangsters of Grand Ravine associated with the gang Base Pilate tried to launch an attack against the districts of Descartes and Martissant 1. Residents of Descartes and Martissant 1 affirm that 2 people were killed and several others wounded yesterday evening. "

- A 19 January 2007 broadcast from Radio Kiskeya, which stated that "A wild war has been underway for several months among gangs called Base Pilate and Lame Ti Manchet, which imposes the law of the jungle on Bolosse, Grand Ravine and Ste-Bernadette."

3. Further on Nanoune Myrthil’s infant

Like any other observer, I do not feel that I yet know the full story of the fate of Nanoune Myrthil’s infant, nor have I ever stated otherwise. However, given the statements of Nanoune Myrthil herself, the focus on the case by Radio Haiti Inter (arguably Haiti’s most independent and respected radio station when it was still broadcasting) and Radio Metropole during 2000/2001, and the separate (yet highly similar) declarations of Johnny Occilius, Jean-Michard Mercier and Sonia Desrosiers, it certainly, to me, seems a case worth investigating and by any standard rises to the level of something that is newsworthy. Can one imagine such a case in the United States or Europe, with individuals similarly close to the seat of power making such declarations and the charges not receiving media attention or a thorough investigation? I certainly cannot.

4. Reporting ethically from Haiti

Most journalists I know, whatever other criticisms I may have of them, would never knowingly print information that they knew to be false. This cannot be said for those seeking to deny justice to the victims of St. Marc and Martissant today.

In 2006, Jeb Sprague and Diana Barhona attacked the press solidarity group Reporters sans frontières (RSF), for supposedly receiving money from the International Republican Institute (IRI). When Sprague and Barhona were unable to produce proof of this claim, RSF News Editor Jean-François Julliard responded succinctly "We do not receive any funding from the International Republican Institute. This is a pure figment of the authors' imagination. Your readers can check our certified accounts on our website, "

Also, in 2006, Jeb Sprague attacked the Haiti Support Group, a London-based solidarity organization that has been working at a grassroots level in Haiti since 1992. In an article co-authored with Joe Emersberger and which appeared in the magazine Counterpunch, Sprague claimed that Haiti Support Group head Charles Arthur encouraged people to harass a researcher who had published highly controversial human rights study in the British medical journal, The Lancet (link). Arthur later wrote that "The statements about me in the Counterpunch piece are pure fiction. " Arthur’s full response to Sprague’s allegations can be read here.

In his 2009 article, “Calls Mount to Free Lavalas Activist," Wadner Pierre (along with Sprague one of the co-editors of the Haiti Analysis website) described Ronald “Black Ronald” Dauphin - a man identified by survivors of the February 2004 pogrom as one of the chief members of the group that carried out the massacre - as “a Haitian political prisoner,” attacked the RNDDH and quoted the IJDH which also, curiously, described Ronald Dauphin in a June 2009 press release as “a Haitian grassroots activist, customs worker and political prisoner,” language mimicked closely in the Sprague/Pierre article.

Wadner Pierre, who recently wrote a rather un-gentlemanly piece mocking Haitian presidential candidate Mirlande Manigat on the basis of here age wrote his laudatory article about those accused in the St. Marc killings having never mentioned that he had been described as working for the IJDH’s Haiti affiliated, the BAI , or that he had previously contributed text and photographs to the IJDH website lauding the April 2007 release of Amanus Mayette, another suspect of the St. Marc massacre, a photo essay that since appears to have been removed from the IJDH site.

Given such a record, I am not surprised that Sprague, Pierre, etc would continue their rather fevered attacks against reporters against myself (which I largely responded to in a blog posting here) and against the victims in Martissant and St. Marc.

Our first and only duty as reporters is not to those abroad who have profited from Haiti’s ongoing misery, it is to the suffering in Haiti themselves. Whatever discomfort that causes in powerful circles beyond Haiti is not only deserved, but welcome and necessary if the cycle of impunity that is killing the country is ever to be ended.

With my best regards and hopes for a peaceful election,


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