MIAMI Haiti must try former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier to uphold the rule of law and strengthen the government in the unstable, earthquake-battered Caribbean nation, said an international human rights lawyer who has pursued ex-despots.
Human Rights Watch counsel Reed Brody, who helped prosecute former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and has represented victims of Chad's exiled ex-ruler Hissene Habre, said the chance to bring Duvalier to justice should be seized by Haiti's government as an important confidence-building measure.
"It's a necessity and it's an opportunity," Brody told Reuters on Wednesday in a telephone interview from Brussels.
"Bringing Duvalier to justice and giving him a fair trial could show Haitians that the state still functions, that it can perform the most basic of duties, to punish those who commit the worst crimes."
Duvalier, now 59, was charged on Tuesday with corruption, theft and other abuses of power in his poor Caribbean homeland after flying back unexpectedly on Sunday from 25 years of quiet exile in France. He was questioned by prosecutors on Tuesday and is now under formal investigation by a Haitian judge.
Duvalier was a chubby-cheeked 19-year-old in 1971 when he became the world's youngest head of state on the death of his feared despot father Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The younger Duvalier fled Haiti in 1986 to escape a popular revolt.
His surprise return on Sunday stunned the nation and an international community that is trying to keep the volatile, chaotic country from plunging back into turmoil following messy, inconclusive November 28 elections held 10 months after a huge earthquake that killed more than 316,000 people.
Brody said it was short-sighted to think Haiti has too many other pressing issues to worry about prosecuting a former ruler for crimes more than 25 years old.
"It would be a devastating blow to the self-esteem of the Haitian government if they could not get their act together to put the handcuffs on a man who allegedly committed mass murder and embezzled tens of millions of dollars," he said.
"GOTTEN AWAY WITH MURDER"
"I mean, if 'Baby Doc' gets away with everything he did, how can the authorities hope to dissuade street gangs from using a little force?" Brody asked, referring to the crime gangs that stalk Port-au-Prince's quake-ravaged slums.
Haitian prosecutors have reactivated previous charges that Duvalier plundered millions of dollars from state coffers.
On Wednesday, four Haitian citizens, including a former U.N. spokeswoman, filed criminal complaints against Duvalier, accusing him of crimes against humanity.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Duvalier should be tried for maintaining his father's rein of terror over Haiti using the same thuggish Tonton Macoutes paramilitary force and henchmen who allegedly killed and tortured thousands of opponents.
These acts amount to crimes against humanity, they say.
"He probably just wasn't as smart as his dad, as cunning as his dad," Brody said. "But under his regime as well, there was Fort Dimanche prison, the Tonton Macoutes and the 'chefs de section' (ward bosses) were still terrorizing the whole country."
He said if Haiti's government showed the will to prosecute Duvalier, it was likely to find foreign support in doing so, including legal experts with experience in prosecuting cases of financial crime or crimes against humanity.
"One of Haiti's most fundamental problems is that through its history repressive rulers like Duvalier and their henchmen have literally gotten away with murder," Brody said. "The law has been used to reinforce the domination of a small elite."
Speculating on why Duvalier came back, Brody said he may have made a "calculated judgment" that this was a moment when Haiti's state, debilitated by the 2010 quake and political crisis, was at its weakest and unable to act decisively.
Another theory was that the former dictator was trying to head off or influence legal efforts in Swiss courts to seize back from him and return to Haiti nearly $6 million in assets that Swiss authorities say were illegally acquired.
"The idea was that if he could go back to Haiti for a few days and say, 'Look, I was in Haiti and they didn't even try to get me,' then he could go back and say, 'Look, they're not after me, so give me my money,'" Brody said.
But, with Duvalier now languishing in a police-guarded Port-au-Prince hotel "at the disposition of judicial authorities," it appeared he may have miscalculated.
"There is a Haitian proverb which says, 'He who delivers the blow forgets, he who carries the scar remembers' ... There are many people who remember," Brody said.
(Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)