MIAMI (Reuters) - Haiti’s ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier says “solidarity” led him to return to his Caribbean homeland where his name is still reviled by many and where he faces claims for retribution from alleged victims.
But some lawyers who track the world’s most egregious human rights offenders think there may be more cold calculation than homesickness in his January 16 return to the poor, disaster-prone nation from which he fled to gilded exile in France in 1986.
They see a link between the homecoming and several million dollars of Duvalier funds allegedly amassed by ill-gotten means in one of the world’s poorest states, Haiti, and squirreled away in the banks of one of the world’s richest, Switzerland.
“Rather than having the interest of the people of Haiti at heart, it seems like he was thinking about his wallet,” Peter Bouckaert, a Swiss-based lawyer who works as emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
But if Duvalier’s uninvited return was indeed a crafty legal ploy to smooth access to those offshore funds now frozen by Switzerland, then it seems to have badly backfired.
Prohibited from leaving Haiti by its authorities, the now frail, pasty-faced, 59-year-old ex-“President-for-Life” faces a barrage of corruption and “crimes against humanity” lawsuits, some filed by former victims of his notorious 15-year rule.
His unexpected return as an unwelcome ghost from Haiti’s turbulent past has brought more convulsion to the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state, already prostrated by last year’s disaster, a cholera epidemic and chaotic November 28 elections.
In his first public statement after his return read in flowery French to reporters on Friday, “Baby Doc” pledged to help rebuild his benighted nation after its 2010 earthquake, and offered regret, but no apology, to victims of his rule.
“No matter the price to be paid, the essential thing was to be with you,” he said. His melancholy message added he had come back to “show my solidarity in this very difficult period”.
“HAIL MARY ATTEMPT”
A chorus of Western donors described Duvalier’s return as unhelpful, a jerk back to the past just when Haiti needed to straighten out its electoral mess and recover from the quake.
Former victims of his rule, which he began in 1971 as a chubby-cheeked teenager after the death of his feared father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, were aghast and appalled.
Several slapped lawsuits against him for a slew of rights abuses, on top of corruption charges from Haitian prosecutors that led a judge to order him not to leave the country.
Switzerland’s government and parliament had already enacted special new legislation to go into effect on February 1 that seeks to return about $6 million of Duvalier funds to Haiti, to be used to improve the lives of all the Haitian people.
Bouckaert and others believe Duvalier may have thought that by briefly visiting Haiti -- he had a return ticket for January 20 -- and demonstrating he could do so without being arrested and charged, he could then make a case in Swiss courts that his own country was not interested in prosecuting him.
Bouckaert says evidence suggests Duvalier is basically now broke after squandering a fortune in exile on lavish living.
“It was kind of a Hail Mary attempt ... but if you’re broke and there’s still 6 million dollars in the bank you’re trying to get hold of, you’re willing to go to desperate means,” he said, adding Duvalier also lost money in a costly divorce.
“From what we’ve learned, he’s quite impoverished, living in a very simple apartment in Paris ... So the 6 million in the Swiss banks is basically his only ticket to some serious cash,” Bouckaert added.
SWITZERLAND‘S “DUVALIER LAW”
The Swiss law that will open the way for the return to Haiti of the Duvalier funds has the long-winded title “Federal Act on the Restitution of Assets of Politically Exposed Persons obtained by Unlawful Means”.
But the Swiss press call it the “Duvalier Law” because it closed a legal loophole that might have allowed the former Haitian dictator to get back his money following a Swiss Federal Supreme Court ruling on January 12 2010 -- the day of Haiti’s crippling earthquake -- that granted an appeal by Duvalier’s lawyers against the return of the money to Haiti.
The Supreme Court at the same time recommended the Swiss government enact new legislation to address the case.
With this new law about to come in force, Swiss government lawyers are now confident they can resist any legal maneuvers by Duvalier and his clan to get back the money -- including any deliberate, strategic return by the ex-ruler to his country.
“It cannot have an impact on the implementation of our law,” said Dieter Cavalleri, head of the section of International Public Law at the Swiss Foreign Ministry.
He told Reuters the new law provides for the presumption that these frozen assets were illicitly acquired, which puts the burden of proof on Duvalier and his lawyers to prove they were legally obtained, posing a more difficult task for them.
Switzerland, whose reputation for bank secrecy had long been as solid as its snow-capped mountains, has become increasingly sensitive to international criticism that its banks hide the ill-gotten gains of notorious dictators, kleptocrats, crooks and tax cheats from across the globe.
A high profile legal dispute between the U.S. government and Switzerland’s biggest bank UBS AG over thousands of American citizens hiding assets from the U.S. taxman in secret offshore Swiss accounts rubbed salt into this sensitivity before the case was settled by a high-level political deal in 2009.
“Switzerland is sensitive, but has been sensitive for years now,” said Cavalleri.
The Swiss Foreign Ministry points to a series of cases over the last decade in which the fiercely independent European state has returned what it calls “potentate funds” -- the polite name for dictator’s loot -- to their respective nations, for example money from Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in 2003 and from Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha in 2005.
Under this same policy, the Swiss government said on Wednesday it would protectively freeze assets belonging to Tunisia’s deposed former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, who is clinging to power despite losing a presidential election.
After Duvalier’s return, a flock of Haitian and American lawyers has circled him, and one of these, Edwin Marger, who said he had previously represented both ”Baby Doc“ and his father ”Papa Doc, told reporters Duvalier intended to use the money in Switzerland “not for himself”, but for Haiti.
“What he would like to do with the funds in Switzerland is to contribute that to the rebuilding of this country,” Marger said on Friday, adding that some international entity or accounting company could handle the money for this purpose.
How free Duvalier will be to assist in the reconstruction of Haiti remains to be seen.
For the moment, he looks set to remain in a private hillside villa overlooking Port-au-Prince, surrounded by friends but “at the disposition of judicial authorities”.
Meanwhile, rights groups are drawing up for prosecutors a chilling list of alleged crimes committed under his rule, including “torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, rapes and other crimes of sexual content, persecution against members of political parties, members of civil society organizations, journalists, peasants, students, trade unions, men and women from Haiti”, according to Amnesty International.
While Duvalier said he hoped his return could sound a “bell of reconciliation” in Haiti, his presence has touched off a debate among his long-suffering former subjects.
“Everything we have in the country is from Duvalier, those roads, the airport. They gave Jean-Claude the presidency when he was a kid. The Duvalier crimes were under his father,” said a supporter, Boucher L‘Andry, 40.
“It’s not a good thing. I lived under Duvalier,” said another Port-au-Prince resident, Christian Joseph, 49, while others were too frightened to even discuss the ex-dictator.
Bouckaert said the mystery over his return was likely to persist: “We’re still trying to find the smoking gun”
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva and Allyn Gaestel in Port-au-Prince; editing by Anthony Boadle