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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - A Haitian appellate court on Thursday ruled that deposed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier could be charged with crimes against humanity under international law and that he may also be held responsible for abuses committed by the army and paramilitary under his rule.
The appellate court reversed a ruling by a judge in 2012 who said Duvalier could not be charged with crimes against humanity filed by alleged victims of forced disappearances and torture during his rule because the statute of limitations had run out.
"Right has triumphed," said human rights lawyer Pierre Esperance. "It's monumental. Haiti is not isolated and international right applies in the country. So crimes against humanity are part of our law."
The court postponed, however, a long-awaited decision on whether Duvalier, commonly known as "Baby Doc," should face trial for human rights abuses and public corruption.
Human rights groups, as well as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, had advised Haitian authorities that there is no statute of limitations under international law for serious violations of human rights.
"This is a major victory for Duvalier's victims who have never given up," said Reed Brody, spokesman for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group that has presented evidence in the case.
"This decision is a green light. It says, 'Go ahead, there is no legal obstacle to prosecuting these crimes,'" he added.
One of Duvalier's accusers, Robert Duval, also welcomed the decision.
"It's extremely important, the judges have established the direct responsibility of Jean-Claude Duvalier in the repression done by the army," he said.
Duval spent 17 months in Fort Dimanche, a notorious jail for political prisoners under Duvalier. "It's a sign of hope for the whole population. They can now denounce anyone who hurt them under the dictatorship," he said.
The three-judge panel said on Thursday that an earlier court ruling was incomplete and turned the case over to a single judge to continue the investigation.
Defense attorney Fritzo Canton said he would appeal the decision, and complained that the judges were unduly influenced by "extreme left-wing" international human rights groups.
Duvalier, 62, who fled into exile in 1986, has consistently denied any responsibility for abuses under his 15-year rule.
Individual government officials "had their own authority," he told the court during a four-hour grilling last year when asked about his role as head of state.
International human rights observers, including Amnesty International, are closely watching the case and consider it an important test of Haiti's weak justice system after decades of dictatorship, military rule and economic mayhem.
Duvalier is alleged by his victims to have had a hand in at least a dozen of the most notorious cases involving extrajudicial killings and detention of political prisoners.
Following 25 years in exile in France, Duvalier was briefly detained on charges of corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds after returning to the impoverished Caribbean country in January 2011.
Duvalier, who inherited the title "President For Life" at the age of 19, is alleged to have fled Haiti with more than $100 million stashed in European bank accounts in 1986 after street demonstrations and riots broke out in a number of cities.
His departure ended nearly three decades of dictatorship begun by his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, in 1957.
The Duvaliers enforced their rule with the aid of a feared militia, the National Security Volunteers, better known as the "Tonton Macoutes," who were blamed for hundreds of deaths and disappearances.
Soon after he returned to Haiti in 2011, taking up residence in a villa in a posh suburb in the hills above the capital Port-au-Prince, Duvalier issued a brief apology to victims of his government.
"Today, the court recognized that there were 29 years of dictatorship in Haiti, a fact denied by the judge who made the previous ruling," said Daniele Magloire, head of Haiti's Collective Against Impunity, a coalition of human rights groups.
Writing and additional reporting by David Adams; editing by G Crosse