(Photo by EVENS SANON)
“My Rosary Is My Only Weapon”- Fr. Jean-Juste goes to Court in Haiti, Again
By Pooja Bhatia, Esq.
Port-au-Prince, 26 November 2007— Hundreds of supporters of Father Gérard Jean-Juste crammed into the courtroom of the Palais de Justice today to attend his long-awaited hearing before the Cour d’Appel (Court of Appeals). Dozens demonstrated outside. Although the court did not dismiss the charges against Jean-Juste—as many of his supporters had hoped and cautiously predicted—the hearing gave them reason to believe that the charges will eventually be dropped.
The Commissaire du Gouvernement, or the prosecutor, officially recommended that the charges against Jean-Juste be dropped. Moreover, the judges gave their legal imprimatur to Jean-Juste’s provisional freedom. As Jean-Juste’s release, on medical grounds in January 2006, was ordered by the government rather than the proper judicial authorities, he was still vulnerable to arrest and detention. As of today, Father Jean-Juste is free to move about.
The judges will now review Jean-Juste’s file and issue their decision on Fr. Jean-Juste’s appeal. He has asked the court to dismiss the charges as unfounded in both law and in fact. Although it is difficult to predict when the decision will finally come down, Jean-Juste’s attorney, Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, believes it will be within one or two weeks.
“I am very pleased that Père Jean-Juste has his freedom, and that the prosecutor recommended dropping the charges,” Mr. Joseph said after the hearing. “I believe that after a short period of time, the Cour d’Appel will issue its ruling.”
If the Cour d’Appel rules against Jean-Juste, Mr. Joseph said, his legal team would file an appeal to the Cour de Cassation, Haiti’s highest tribunal.
Father Jean-Juste was imprisoned twice during the regime of Haiti’s Interim Government (2004-2006). In October 2004, he was arrested for plotting against the security of the state and later accused of murder. There was never any evidence presented for those charges. Fr. Jean-Juste was released provisionally after seven weeks in jail, and the charges were eventually dismissed.
In July 2005, Jean-Juste was taken into custody by MINUSTAH troops, and handed over to the police—at first, purportedly for his own protection. He was later accused of kidnapping and murdering journalist Jacques Roche. No evidence was ever presented to back up the murder allegations, and those charges were eventually dismissed. But in the meantime the interim government charged Jean-Juste with possession of illegal weapons and “association de malfaiteurs”—a vague conspiracy charge that had proven malleable enough to justify the detention of hundreds of Lavalas activists. Although no evidence was presented that Fr. Jean-Juste possessed any weapons, or that there was a criminal conspiracy, he was held in jail for five months.
The arrest was widely understood as an attempt to silence Jean-Juste. International human rights organizations denounced the charges as politically motivated, and Amnesty International promptly declared Jean-Juste a prisoner of conscience. Like former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Jean-Juste has an ardent following among the masses, and was, for many, the presumptive heir to Aristide’s mantle. At the time of his arrest, he was a leading critic of the interim government’s human rights policies, and Haiti’s most effective advocate for non-violent social change.
Jean-Juste languished at the National Penitentiary from July 2005 until January 2006, the eve of elections. There, he contracted pneumonia, which was apparently brought on by prison conditions. In December 2005, two United States doctors, including the prominent Harvard physician Paul Farmer, diagnosed him with leukemia. Amid heavy international pressure, Jean-Juste was granted a humanitarian release to seek medical treatment in Miami, on the condition that he would return to Haiti to face the charges against him. A week before Haiti’s presidential elections, Jean-Juste went to Miami to begin chemotherapy.
This April, while Jean-Juste was being treated in Miami, Mr. Joseph argued his appeal, contending that the ordonnance, or charging document, had several legal flaws, and did not contain any evidence of illegal activity by Fr. Jean-Juste. He noted that there was no evidence that Fr. Jean-Juste had ever possessed the guns in question, which the government had given to Fr. Jean-Juste’s security detail before the February 2004 coup d’état. Attorney Joseph also presented certifications that the guns had been returned to the government, and noted that there was no allegation of underlying crime on which a conspiracy charge could be based. At the April hearing, the Commissaire du Gouvernment agreed with Mr. Joseph and recommended dropping all the charges against Jean-Juste. However, the Cour d’Appel held that Father Jean-Juste must be present for the charges to be dropped.
Today’s hearing consisted of a two-hour-long interrogation of Jean-Juste, in a stuffy courtroom made sweltering by the presence of hundreds of supporters, a dozen international observers, and at least 30 journalists. For much of the time, Jean-Juste, who had been battling leukemia, was standing on his feet. When asked to respond to the illegal weapons charge, Jean-Juste pulled out his rosary and said it was the only weapon he had. The crowd erupted in cheers. Later, when asked about the association de malfaiteurs charge, Jean-Juste, a Roman Catholic priest, explained that his only associations were with Jesus, the Pope, bishops and the people he works with and feeds at his rectory in Port-au-Prince. The crowd roared again.
Pooja Bhatia is a lawyer and Harvard Law School Satter Human Rights Fellow who is spending the year working for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Port-au-Prince. She can be reached at Pooja@ijdh.org or + 509-658-9845 . Haitian journalist Wadner Pierre took the photographs that accompany this article. For more information about Fr. Jean-Juste’s legal battles, see Fr. Jean-Juste Harassed Again on the website of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Brian Concannon Jr., Esq.
Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
PO Box 745
Joseph, OR 97846
(Photo by a good friend, Joe Zelenka)