Posted on November 1, 2011

Raucous Trial Is a Test of Haiti’s Legal System

Walt Bogdanich and Deborah Sontag, New York Times, October 31, 2011

It is a legal spectacle unlike anything Haiti has seen: the government trying 13 of its own police officers–including high-ranking prison officials and riot squad members–on charges of murder, attempted murder or other crimes stemming from a prison massacre here last year.


By American legal standards, the trial in this provincial seaside city is more than a little bizarre: small bottles of Roi des Coqs rum are sold inside the doorway; defense lawyers shout insults at the judge, claiming the trial is fixed; observers cheer as if they were at a soccer game, while some witnesses testify in semidarkness because the building has no lights.

Yet for all its quirks, the trial of these police officers–21 more have been charged but are not yet in custody–is remarkable given Haiti’s history of ruthless dictators, corrupt courts and unpunished crimes. Three inmates testified on Thursday against the same police force that was guarding them in the prison in Les Cayes, accusing the defendants of indiscriminate executions and beatings.


More than 20 detainees died and at least 15 were wounded, said Jean-Marie J. Salomon, the lead prosecutor in the case.


The massacre took place amid the chaos after Haiti’s devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, and the government largely accepted the explanation of prison officials that a single detainee had fatally shot the inmates during a disturbance at the prison.

But an investigation by The New York Times in May 2010 contradicted that account. It found that the officers had shot unarmed prisoners, then sought to cover it up, in part by burying bodies in unmarked graves.

As a result, an independent commission, financed by the Haitian government and the United Nations, investigated and concluded that Haitian officers had opened fire “deliberately and without justification.” {snip}


The shootings, according to witnesses interviewed by The Times last year, can be traced to the aftermath of the earthquake, when worried detainees, most of them not convicted of crimes but awaiting trial, clamored to be released from the squalid prison.

The most vocal were beaten and stuffed into a cell that was already overcrowded, witnesses said. Bathroom privileges were taken away. A week later, when a guard opened a cell door so waste buckets could be removed, the occupants overwhelmed him, taking his keys and freeing the rest of the prisoners.

What happened next–the prosecutor compared it to a “horror film”–is what the trial is all about. Detainees say they were hit with tear gas and told to lie facedown on the ground. When they complied, the prisoners said, they were shot, either on the ground or in their cells.