The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 01           January 11, 2005  
‘Release political prisoners
in Haiti,’ says freed priest
MIAMI—“I’m on a campaign to free political prisoners, and the other victims of arbitrary arrest, and to publicize the wretched conditions inside Haiti’s prisons,’’ Reverend Gérard Jean-Juste said at a meeting here December 7. “We in Haiti and abroad, we want freedom for all the political prisoners.’’

Jean-Juste, an activist priest closely associated with deposed former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, returned to Miami for a brief visit after his release from prison. He walked out of his jail cell in Haiti November 29, 47 days after being arrested October 13. Charges against him were dismissed at a hearing November 12.

Aristide, currently in exile in South Africa, was forcibly expelled by U.S. Special Forces February 29 during a rightist takeover last year. Washington then installed Gerard Latortue, who was flown in from Florida after living in the United States for decades, as interim prime minister. Scores of Aristide supporters and former government officials have been imprisoned since the U.S.-backed coup.

‘‘I am one set free. There are more than 700 more to go,” Jean-Juste told participants at the meeting of Veye Yo, a Haitian rights organization. He said he was convinced that half of the prisoners in Haiti’s jails were political, while most of the rest have been arrested arbitrarily—young men rounded up on suspicion of violent acts in support of Aristide.

Jean-Juste was well known in Miami as an advocate for the rights of Haitian immigrants. He served as director of the Haitian Refugee Center and founded Veye Yo, and led numerous protests for immigrant rights in the 1980s.

On the evening of his arrest in Haiti, 200 demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of Veye Yo to demand his release. Other protests were organized later in Miami, while some 30 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to the State Department calling for the release of Jean-Juste, former government officials, and other prominent supporters of Aristide.

Cops and masked men with automatic weapons seized Jean-Juste at the Sainte Claire Catholic Church in a working-class neighborhood in Port-au-Prince where he is the pastor. Hundreds of children had gathered to eat food provided by a U.S. charity foundation. Three of the children were shot and wounded while Jean-Juste was dragged though the window over broken glass during the arrest.

Jean-Juste said the arrest came shortly after he spoke with former president Aristide via cell phone. He was later charged with disturbing the peace, a violation punishable by a 40 cent fine.

He joked that he was treated relatively peacefully by the Haitian cops. “Imagine if I had been a young man in Brooklyn!” he told Veye Yo members, referring to the torture inflicted by New York City police on Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Haitian justice minister Bernard Gousse told a news conference that Jean-Juste was arrested because he “was sheltering people” who were “perpetrators of barbaric acts.”

Interim prime minister Gerard Latortue alleged that Jean-Juste and other priests, as well as leaders of Aristide’s party, Lavalas, have been organizing against the interim government installed by Washington, the Miami Herald reported. “They want to cut off my head and kill two or three ministers,” said Latortue. “They see Jean-Juste as their leader. A battle is being fought on behalf of Aristide against the government.”

Jean-Juste described his time in prison to the Veye Yo members, explaining the horrible sanitary conditions, widespread sexual abuse, and violence against inmates. He denounced the brutality meted out by prison authorities, explaining how one day he counted 14 head injuries inflicted by the guards. “A prisoner without money can starve to death in prison; but so can a prisoner who has money,” he told the group of Haitian workers.

Some of the inmates he saw included former prime minister Yvon Neptune, numerous elected officials, former government employees, Lavalas party leaders, judges, and lawyers.

In an interview with radio station KPFA shortly before his trip to Miami, he described one cell where he was held with 12 others as “first class” with beds and a shower. In another cell 18 inmates were crammed together who shared a bucket for a toilet and slept on the floor. Under these conditions, one cellmate died due to lack of medical attention.

Jean-Juste said at the Miami meeting that two days after his release from the Carrefour jail cops opened fire on prisoners at the National Penitentiary. The police claimed seven were killed in gang violence in the jail. Jean-Juste stated that he has reports of 100 deaths at the hands of guards. An account from a prisoner who was there published by the Haitian Press Agency on December 10 estimates 60 prisoners were killed.

‘‘Aristide is still the president of Haiti until February 7, 2006. He is my president,’’ Jean-Juste told supporters in Miami. “He was kidnapped on February 29, 2004, and he’s been replaced by an illegal, unconstitutional de facto government.’’  
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