PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide appeared in public for the first time since returning from exile more than two years ago, testifying in court on Wednesday about the assassination more than a decade ago of a popular radio journalist and human rights activist.
In a testament to his continued political sway, thousands of supporters sang pro-Aristide songs and waved his picture behind police barricades down the street from the courthouse. They had pledged to accompany him from his home in a Port-au-Prince suburb to the court and back despite a ban on demonstrations for the day.
Aristide, still a polarizing figure, was accompanied by political allies and armed police guards to the judge’s chamber in the capital where he spent just under three hours answering questions in the case of Jean Dominique, who was gunned down in April 2000 along with a security guard outside Haiti-Inter, the radio station he owned.
Aristide smiled to reporters but made no comment as he left the left the courthouse. “The atmosphere was very cordial. The courts did a good job, the police provided good security,” his lawyer, Mario Joseph, told Reuters after leaving court.
Dominique’s death occurred as Aristide was preparing to run for a second presidential term that year and Dominique was also rumored as a potential presidential candidate.
While several low-level arrests of the suspected gunmen were made at the time, who ordered the murder has remained one of Haiti’s great unsolved crimes.
More than half a dozen people allegedly involved in the assassination have either been killed or have disappeared over the years, as well as several witnesses who claimed to have evidence in the case.
For years Dominique’s widow, Michele Montas, sought to have the case re-opened, hoping that Aristide and others could shed light on who was behind the crime.
“The investigation has led to people close to the high levels of the Lavalas party that Aristide headed. He may not have given the green light but I am sure he knows who did it,” Montas, 66, a former United Nations spokeswoman who was in New York, told Reuters.
Aristide’s lawyer declined to discuss the investigation, saying only that his client had been called as a witness. “The judge listened to what he had to say,” Joseph said.
Several high-profile witnesses and persons of interest have already been called to the chamber of the investigating judge, Yvickel Dabrésil.
Former President René Préval, who was in power at the time of Dominique’s killing, slipped in and out of the courthouse for questioning without incident earlier this year.
Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in 1990, but was twice violently ousted from office and dispatched into exile in 1991 and 2004.
He was last seen in public in March 2011, on the morning he landed in Port-au-Prince after seven years of exile in South Africa.
Aristide returned just two months after another former president, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, returned from a long exile, and it was feared their presence would upset political stability as the impoverished country struggled to recover from the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and left more than one million people homeless.
Aristides’ appearance before the judge on Wednesday comes as hotly anticipated municipal and parliamentary elections are being planned.
“President Aristide is ready to participate in justice,” Joseph, Aristide’s long-time attorney, told Reuters before the proceedings. He expressed concern that the former president’s participation in the Dominique investigation was being used for political reasons.
Dominique’s murder was especially shocking at the time as he was a close friend of Préval, and a former supporter of Aristide. The killing was made into a 2003 documentary, “The Agronomist,” by the Oscar-winning American film director, Jonathan Demme.
Montas, who left Haiti after an attempt on her life in 2002, said rumors that her husband planned to run against Aristide in the 2000 presidential elections were false. However, it was true that relations between the two former friends “had cooled tremendously,” she said.
“People thought he would run but he had no intention. He cared too much about his work as a journalist,” she added.
Although Aristide has an enormous popular base, particularly through his political party Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family), he is still a deeply divisive figure and any potential appearance of the former president carries security concerns.
“Fanmi Lavalas will accompany the president from his home to court and back again, to make sure he gets home again,” said Laurore Jean Wendy, an Aristide supporter.
Although the Dominique proceedings may be standard, “for us, there’s some other motivation behind it. It’s a provocation, because elections are coming,” he added.
Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by David Adams, Jackie Frank and Vicki Allen