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Earthquake Frees Haitian Prisoners from Port-au-Prince Jail, 80% Never Charged with a Crime

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All the prisoners jailed at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince escaped in the earthquake. We speak with leading Haitian human rights attorney Mario Joseph, who says 80 percent of all prisoners in Haiti were not charged with a crime. We also speak with Dr. Evan Lyon of Partners in Health about the issue of prisons. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, you just mentioned prisons. And let’s go to that issue now, because all the prisoners jailed at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince escaped in the earthquake, at least those who didn’t die. And we don’t have figures on this.

In a few minutes, we’re going to bring you an interview with the leading Haitian human rights attorney, who says 80 percent of all prisoners in Haiti were never even charged with a crime. He said the earthquake set them free. But first we’re going to go to a man, if you’ve been watching Democracy Now!, you’re familiar with, because yesterday he — we brought you the piece where he toured us around the General Hospital of Port-au-Prince, a part of which, by the way, since we were there, had to be evacuated, because of the aftershock. His name is Dr. Evan Lyon. He’s with Partners in Health. And he started to talk about the issue of the prisons.

    DR. EVAN LYON: The National Penitentiary held 4,000 prisoners. We know that 60 to 80 percent of them are not convicted of anything. They’re in prolonged pretrial detention. The average pretrial detention is a year. So, between time of arrest and accusation to the time you see a judge, the average is a year. Sometimes that’s out to two, and sometimes that’s out to three. It’s a fairly common practice in Haiti. If someone who’s accused can’t be found, a family member will be picked up. So the lies that criminals have been released into the street is a lie. Sixty to 80 percent of these people are not convicted of anything. And so, there are other things to deal with, but I think that’s a very important piece of the puzzle.

    The Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, Mario Joseph, Brian Concannon and I, with Parters in Health, we’ve been working for the last year to provide medical care and legal service in three of the — in the provincial prisons, where we have a system to give medical care, that’s never given, and to provide legal access, which is also never given. And so, that‘s starting to roll. With so many people in prison without sentence and without conviction, it might be looked at as positive that the prison is destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Evan Lyon. We were speaking to him at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince. And you heard him mention Mario Joseph, one of Haiti’s most prominent human rights attorneys. Well, for more on this issue, we spoke with Mario Joseph, who for years has fought for the rights of political prisoners, including many opponents of the 2004 coup that ousted Haiti’s democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Mario Joseph’s current clients include Ronald Dauphin, an activist with Aristide’s Lavalas party, who was arrested by armed paramilitary troops one day after the coup. Dauphin was held without charge up until last week, when the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince collapsed, freeing him and the 4,000 other prisoners inside.

Mario Joseph began the interview by describing his role as an attorney. He is translated by Haiti Liberté’s Kim Ives.

    MARIO JOSEPH: [translated] My name is Mario Joseph. I’m a human rights lawyer. I work with political prisoners in the poorest country, the poorest people in the country.

    AMY GOODMAN: The prison is empty now. Can you talk about the significance of that?

    MARIO JOSEPH: [translated] They say in French, “For some things, bad things are good.” And I think this catastrophe, which did a lot of damage in Haiti, this earthquake, it gave justice to the people in the prison — above all, the political prisoners like Ronald Dauphin. And this will make six years since Ronald Dauphin has been in prison without charges, without ever being charged. Not only Ronald Dauphin, but a lot of other people who are in prison, if they judged them, they would have left prison a long time ago.

    AMY GOODMAN: Ronald Dauphin, why was he put in prison?

    MARIO JOSEPH: [translated] Ronald Dauphin is in prison, an incident that happened in La Scierie in St. Marc before the coup d’état. We’re talking about the coup d’état of February 29, 2004.

    It’s a typically political dossier, because the people who made the coup d’état wanted to judge some of the people close to the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And that’s how the government of Canada gave money to an organization called NCHR, National Coalition for Haitian Rights. It’s changed its name. They changed their name, because they said, after that, they couldn’t use the function under the same name. Now they’re called the National Network of Defending Rights in Haiti. Changing the name doesn’t mean they’ve changed their attitudes [inaudible]. They put together a dossier, and that’s how they put a lot of people in prison. Like first the Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, the Interior Minister Jocelerme Privert, and Deputy Amanus Mayette, Ronald Dauphin and a lot of other people were in prison.

    AMY GOODMAN: So talk about who gets put in prison. How long do they stay? How many of them had not been charged?

    MARIO JOSEPH: [translated] Up until now, nothing has happened, because there haven’t been any charges. But for certain people, like the Prime Minister, according to the Constitution, 186, he can’t be judged in an ordinary court because he’s political. But even though he said that, they kept him in prison for twenty-five months. After the inauguration of President Préval, there were certain people which they freed, like the Interior Minister, like former Deputy Amanus Mayette. But up until now, they kept Ronald Dauphin in prison, because he was less well known. And that’s the system of exclusion in Haiti.

    AMY GOODMAN: Explain how many people haven’t been charged who were in prison, how many people were there without trial.

    MARIO JOSEPH: [translated] Generally, in the Haitian prisons, everybody agrees that there are about 80 percent of the people are not charged. It is only a few, maybe ten percent, which are convicted. And those are awaiting an order to be sent to court. And that’s supposed to be done in three months, and he’s been waiting six years. He’s never been judged. In all the prisons, 90 percent are not judged, are not even charged. That’s in the system. And that’s what I’m telling you. This event, this earthquake, it’s justice with the getting the people out of jail.

    The other thing I can say, in Haiti, we have a symbolic — the palace that went down, the Palace of Justice, the Haitian IRS, and the whole power of the state. This is like a message that was sent, because it wasn’t just the people in prison who were suffering injustice, but the poorest in the country, the excluded in the country. Thus I think it was a clear message. It was a symbolic thing for the people who are the chiefs in the country, in the government, to know how to serve the people and to stop the exclusionary system which was there for 200 years.

    AMY GOODMAN: And yet, so many people died. Poor Haitians simply died.

    MARIO JOSEPH: [translated] Yes, it is true that many of the poorest people, they did die. It is true that many people who had a good education, directors who also died. But it hit primarily the poorest people, because they didn’t have good houses. They didn’t have good places and security where they lived. The way the earthquake hit, it didn’t discriminate. That’s a good example for us to look at in Haiti and stop with this exclusionary system. It’s true a lot of poor people were touched by this, but even people with big houses or small houses, everybody is living in the street now. This is why we have to begin to end the system of exclusion, for everybody to participate in the country’s life. And this is the message I would send to the Haitian government, which is always slow to send it to the poorest people — aid.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mario Joseph, Haitian human rights attorney, speaking to us in Port-au-Prince late yesterday. I want to issue a special thanks to my colleagues, as we stood together and reported together through these days in Haiti, to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, to Elizabeth Press, to Kim Ives, who worked with us from Haiti Liberté. Tomorrow we’ll bring you a special on the journey from Port-au-Prince to Léogâne, really the epicenter of the earthquake. The question being asked everywhere: if the aid is at the airport, if all of these countries are working so hard to bring in people, from search and rescue to water, to food, why is it that the Haitian people have largely felt untouched by that support?

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