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2005-07-28

Amnesty International Declares Father Jean-Juste a "Prisoner of Conscience"

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Haitian Priest Gerard Jean-Juste has been declared a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International after his recent arrest and incommunicado detention. We speak with Amnesty International about his case and the ongoing violence in Haiti on the 90th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Haiti. [includes rush transcript]

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Haiti. On July 28, 1915, U.S. forces invaded Haiti, launching an occupation that would last 19 years.

In an Op-Ed in the Miami Herald, Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat writes "The 1915-1934 U.S. occupation is not the only problem that Haiti has or has ever faced in the last nine decades. Yet it is one more hurdle that the country has had to overcome in a long and painful cycle of destruction and reconstruction, self-governance and subjugation." Today, Haiti’s first democratically-elected leader Jean Bertrand Aristide lives in forced exile in South Africa. He was overthrown a year and a half ago in what he calls a "modern-day" kidnapping in the service of a coup d’etat backed by the United States.

In the aftermath of the coup, armed gangs roam the country and UN forces patrol the streets. In the capital of Port-au-Prince, more than 700 people have been killed since last September. A raid by UN forces earlier this month left as many as 23 civilians dead.

Meanwhile, Haitian Priest Gerard Jean-Juste, a leader in Aristide’s Lavalas party, was arrested last week and charged with the assassination of journalist Jaques Roche even though he was in Miami at the time of the murder. Father Jean-Juste is now being held incommunicado. Amnesty International has announced it considers Father Jean-Juste a prisoner of conscience. Amnesty is also releasing a new report today on human rights abuses titled, "Haiti: Disarmament delayed, justice denied."

Past Democracy Now! Interviews & Coverage On Father Gerard Jean-Juste:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Eric Olson in our Washington studio, Advocacy Director for the Americas for Amnesty International. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ERIC OLSON: Thank you. Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, can talk about Father Jean-Juste being held incommunicado in solitary at the national penitentiary charged with murder?

ERIC OLSON: Well, as you have already said, that’s the information we have. There’s not been much information and contact with him. He is being held incommunicado. He was detained while he attended the funeral of this journalist, Jacques Roche. And he was first put in the prison with — a small cell with 43 others, and subsequently has been moved to the national penitentiary, where he is in solitary confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: And Amnesty had declared him a "prisoner of conscience?"

ERIC OLSON: Yeah. We have declared him a prisoner of conscience. That generally — that means for us that the sole reason he is being imprisoned, in our estimation, is because he has expressed a political — for his political beliefs or his religious beliefs, in this case because he has been critical of the government and expressed his political beliefs freely and openly. And that’s the real basis for his incarceration.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You’re also releasing a new report on Haiti today. Could you tell us about it?

ERIC OLSON: Yeah, this is a report that looks back at the — basically the last 18 months since the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. We’ve focused particularly on the issue of weapons in the hands of human rights violators. We think it’s enormously urgent that the interim government and the U.N. and the international community focus on disarming, dismantling and reintegrating many of these former military and members of paramilitary groups that have returned to Haiti and are in control of large parts of country, are committing gross and widespread human rights violations against the Haitian civilians, and which the interim government sadly is just turning a blind eye to in so many instances. So we’re focused primarily on the need, the urgent need for disarmament of Haiti. There are an estimated 170,000 small arms in Haiti in the hands of former military and former paramilitary and armed gangs, and that’s the source of much of the human rights abuse and violations going on there today.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Olson, in the last months, we reported on the U.S. government actually sending something like 1,000 weapons to Haiti and this, well, what many call an illegitimate government, certainly not a democratically-elected government that has replaced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Your response?

ERIC OLSON: Yeah. We have been very concerned about the fact that the U.S. government has been considering a request to license the sale of weapons to Haiti. Haiti is awash in weapons right now. There’s no effective way to control them. They are cause of many of the human rights violations, as I say. So we are deeply concerned that the U.S. government was considering that. The good news is that just a few weeks ago, the House of Representatives agreed to an amendment by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which would prohibit the sale of weapons to Haiti. That’s not become law yet. It still, you know needs to go to the President and be signed, so we don’t know the outcome, but at least there was that positive step under the leadership of members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the U.N. peacekeepers themselves? Did your report look into any abuses by them at all?

ERIC OLSON: Well, it did. We talked about their weak response to so many of the human rights violations, the fact that they have not worked effectively with the interim government to develop and come up with a credible disarmament plan. We are deeply concerned that they have been a weak link in this chain. Nevertheless, it’s important for the U.N. mission and the international community together to play a very strong and forceful role in trying to re-establish respect for human rights in Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: On that issue of calling them a weak link, I mean, there were recently protests at a lot of Brazilian embassies from Brazil through the United States up to Canada, because the head of the U.N. forces is Brazilian, but the issue, for example, of the City Soleil, what some are calling a massacre, up to 23 people killed, this was by the U.N. forces. So, not just a weak link, but actually perpetrating the violence.

ERIC OLSON: It’s very possible. We didn’t — the report we just came out that just came out didn’t cover that particular incident. It’s a new incident. It’s one that we’re very concerned about and trying to investigate, but you’re right. I mean, I think there have been some very credible reports of their involvement directly in committing abuses and violence in the community of Cite Soleil. So it is a major concern.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Olson, I want to thank you for being with us, of Amnesty International, which has declared Father Jean-Juste a prisoner of conscience, being held in solitary confinement at the national penitentiary in Haiti. The Amnesty report, "Haiti: Disarmament Delayed, Justice Denied." You will be able to link to it through our website. Also at democracynow.org, you can link to our last conversation__ with Father Jean-Juste. We spoke to him last Thursday on a cell phone as he was making his way to the funeral where he was beaten up and arrested. He said police were following him as he was doing the interview.

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