As Haitians await the election results, Haitian Catholic priest Father Gerard Jean Juste, temporarily released from prison after more than 6 months in a Haitian jail, speaks on the election, his arrest and jail conditions, and the leadership and future of Haiti. [includes rush transcript]
Last week Father Gerard Jean Juste was temporarily released from jail in Haiti in order to be treated for leukemia and pneumonia. Hundreds of religious, political and human rights leaders and 50 members of the U.S. congress had called on the interim Haitian government to release him.Amnesty International had labeled him a "prisoner of conscience." On Monday, Father Jean Juste announced his support for Rene Preval.
- Gerard Jean Juste, freed from prison in Haiti
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We welcome you to Democracy Now! It is great to have you with us, Father Jean-Juste.
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you feeling?
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: I’m feeling a little bit better and I thank all of you, friends, religious people, people everywhere in different countries around the world and legislators. I thank all of you who helped me recuperate now, and I have received outstanding medical treatment at the Jackson Memorial Hospital. I’m so happy that so many people caring for me and I want to remain grateful to all of you for my whole life.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste, can you share your response to the election that took place in your country, as you are here in the United States right now?
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Of course. That was my birthday present, as I foresaw it. And the people have responded in big numbers and they wanted to exercise their rights to vote and indeed have exercised it. I am happy, and I hope that from now on, nobody should stop the Haitian people from enjoying the right to vote. Also now, I hope that no one should try once more to go against the will of the people because that’s created so much turmoil, such a chaotic situation that we have lived since February 29, 2004, so we hope that everyone from now on will have great respect for the poorest one will have great respect for everyone. Particularly those poorest people who are trying hard to get off misery and to organize themselves and we have one more chance in history to regain our place as a nation and to contribute as our ancestors have contributed to freedom. This is a great step in the right direction, and I congratulate everyone who helped us to live this great day, February 7, 2006.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste, we last spoke to you on July 21st. You were headed to the funeral of a journalist named Jacques Roche. You were arrested after being attacked by a mob. They charged you with the murder of Jacques Roche, and you ended up more than six months in jail, temporarily released right now for medical treatment. Can you describe what happened that day? I remember when we were talking to you, you said you were being followed at that point. We were talking to you in your car on the way to the funeral.
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Yes, indeed. On my way to the church I was followed by the police and the siren going loud was distracting me while I was talking to you on the radio. So when I arrived at church, and then I humbly wanted so much to offer my condolences and my comfort to the parents of Jacques Roche, to all the friends, because this is a brother that I didn’t know personally, but after his death, I’ve learned a lot about him. And also knowing that his father is from the same town from where I am from in Haiti, from Carvaillion. We have a good time in Carvaillion, the Jean-Juste family and the Roche family.
So I took the opportunity to go there to pray and accompany them. But unfortunately, there was a plot going on. I was not aware of it. They directed the mob in my direction so I saw myself surrounded in the church and on the sacristy of the church and then I kneeled down to pray. I said, "God, I surrender unto you my soul," because I was ready to accept death as one of the attackers have told me that what I see coming for you, father, is bad. You better leave right away. Then as I was leaving, walking backward toward the sacristy and toward the rectory, the mob keep attacking me, and I was accompanied by the attorney, Bill Quigley, a volunteer attorney, who had done a great job, to help us in the struggle, and then the mob keep coming on me, beating me all over my neck, beating me all over my shoulders. They threw some liquid at me, which was poured over my neck. I didn’t know what kind apparently it was a chemical liquid.
Also, at a certain time, I was —- I saw a young lady tear into the crowd, rushing toward me, jump on my neck and with a rosary in her hands and praying, helping me to pray. She was—- received blows for me. And then someone has withdrawn a pick about two feet long, tried to stab me from my heart side. And the lady got in her jacket the pick that pierced the side of her and missed me. So that lady saved me. And we moved up the stairs to the rectory. At the rectory, we hid ourselves at the ladies’ restroom.
From there the police and the minister, the troops from the United Nations, they arrived. They told me that it is not safe to stay where I was because they were trying to burn the rectory. They had to take me away to the police commissariat. I went to the police headquarters, even though a priest friend of mine said "No, the priest is okay here at the Rectory. There would be no attack. Leave him here." So they decided — police force decided to take me away to the police headquarters which was about a mile from the rectory.
AMY GOODMAN: And they then arrested you?
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Then, I arrived there by 11:30 A.M. By 9:30 p.m., instead of letting me go home, me, who has been the victim, and the attackers who have all have been left alone, going freely in the streets. I was the one being arrested and thrown at the bare floor of the cell at the police station, joining about 44 others — 44 other prisoners there. It was a tough day for me without food, without drink and beaten, in very bad shape. I had received no medication at all. There I was on the floor, suffering. The next day, they brought me to the main penitentiary, where they put me in isolation which has been a kind of tomb on the heavy set of a building so they call it 'Titanic.'
So there I spent over a month where I kept fainting, I couldn’t survive, until the prisoners took good care of me. They brought me up on their shoulders to the clinic, to the medical clinic. There I received some treatment. From that day, I decided to go on hunger strike for many reasons because the deportees I found in a section of the jail, where there nobody knew about them, and they had no hope at all. Also, some prisoners were sick. Instead of receiving treatment, they were maltreated. Also, overcrowding situation at the jail, and some youngsters dying and some of them who suffered from mental sickness. Instead of receiving care, they punished them further. That was heartbreaking for me.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste, when you were held in prison for the six months, there was word that you were going to run for president, but that the interim government, the unelected government said because they had jailed you, you could not run. Is that right?
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: But that’s what amazed me. I didn’t know I was so popular in Haiti. The government, it seems that they had made some kind of survey. They tried to trap me before election. I didn’t know that. Even the Bishop of Port-au-Prince who is a good friend of mine, Monsignor Miot, Bishop Miot, he advised me not to go on, to stay at the church, because they are plotting something against me. It happened just that day. I couldn’t hold it. I went to the church, but it is true, they knew that something would happen. But myself, I was not aware of it at the time I talked to you, frankly.
When I was in jail and suddenly, listening to the radio, I heard the people who had been demonstrating for my freedom. Instead of saying freedom for me, they say that they want me to be their candidate. I was surprised. I was shocked. I was happy, too, because to tell you frankly, I was not looking to become a candidate to become president. But I flirt with that idea once in a while, especially when the reporters are after me. So it is a good feeling.
AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately, though, Father Jean-Juste, you supported René Preval, who is considered the front-runner in this election. It is said he would allow President Aristide to return home. Have you spoken to President Aristide?
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Yes, indeed. From July until January 29, From July, 2005, to January, 2006, I have not spoken to President Aristide. I wanted so much to talk to him. We tried to correspond. I tried to sneak a phone into the prison cell, a cellular phone, tried hard, badly to talk to him. I failed. Somebody else got the phone, and he was punished. The other prisoner was punished. They didn’t catch me with it, but I finally talked to President Aristide. I was so happy the other day when I talked to him. I talked to the first lady also, Mildred.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you expect President Aristide to return to Haiti?
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Definitely. That’s his right. That’s his right because the Constitution of Haiti does not allow to keep any Haitian in exile. Even Jean Claude Duvalier, "Baby Doc." If he wants to return to Haiti, he should be able to return to Haiti.
AMY GOODMAN: Will you — will you, Father Jean-Juste, return? You have been temporarily released for your health treatment.
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Ask my good doctors, Dr. Paul Farmer, Dr. Ann, and many others who are treating me now, Dr. Jennifer Fueh. Ask them, they tell me, "Gerry, you can go home now." I will try to book a reservation and go home immediately, because this is the first time since many years I have missed such big events in Haiti. Remember, the first — excuse me?
AMY GOODMAN: I was going to ask: the former Prime Minister, Yvonne Neptune, still in prison in the same prison you were held at, the National Penitentiary?
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Yes, we were held together. During my first, I was stationed at the National Penitentiary, but they tried to separate us because whenever they see us together, they think that we are plotting something. So when I arrived this time where we have been in jail together, they said I have no right to visit him. But, you know, knowing me, I sneak in once in a while without permission, and then we manage to correspond by letters. We write a lot of letters to each other almost every day. We keep writing each other.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have — GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: He refused to eat. He is in danger now. I’m afraid for my brother, Yvonne Neptune. Because since eight months, he consumed no solid food, only liquid, water, and some vitamins. I don’t know how he survives.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste, we only have 30 seconds, but I want to ask you, if you return to Haiti, will you be re-imprisoned?
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Prison or not, I’d love to be back to Haiti because this is where the action is taking place. I love people around here too. I want to tell my brothers and sisters, all my friends, I love you all, Margaret, Francois who has been helping us with food, with the foundations and so many other people helping me from U.S.
Also, let me take this minute to say special thanks to Amnesty International. I received over 4,000 letters from December to January, coming from Canada, coming from Europe, and coming from the United States, all over. I’m so happy about it. That’s helped the prisoners so much. Even the other prisoners share my letters. They took some of my cards and placed them by their bed. They were happy. So thanks to you all who were concerned about the prisoners, the lawyers and everybody else.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Jean-Juste —
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: Brian Concannon, and everybody else.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us and speaking to us from Miami, where you have been released to receive medical treatment. Thank you.
GERARD JEAN-JUSTE: You’re welcome.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Gerard Jean-Juste, imprisoned in Haiti for more than six months, now in the United States, hoping to return very soon to his home in Haiti.