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 as he arrived at court on Wednesday to testify 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, hundreds 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 was to answer 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.
His death occurred as Aristide was preparing to run for re-election in presidential elections that year and Dominique was also rumored as a potential candidate.
While several low-level arrests of the suspected gunmen were made at the time, the matter of who ordered the murder has remained one of Haiti’s great unsolved crimes.
Thirteen years later, the Dominique file has been re-opened, and 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 back 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 devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and left more than one million people homeless.
Aristide’s 2011 arrival came just days before a presidential election runoff between President Michel Martelly and another candidate, and Wednesday’s appearance before the judge comes as hotly anticipated municipal and parliamentary elections are being planned.
“President Aristide is ready to participate in justice,” Mario Joseph, Aristide’s long-time attorney, told Reuters before Wednesday’s proceedings.
Joseph expressed concern that the former president’s participation in the Dominique investigation was being used for political means.
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 movie, The Agronomist, by the Oscar-winning American film director, Jonathan Demme.
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.
Authorities from Haiti’s National Police said they had not sanctioned any marches or protest surrounding Aristide’s private home or the courthouse, and that all street manifestations would be banned for the day to facilitate the former president’s safe passage. A previous court date, coinciding with an international summit in April, was postponed so that the police would have enough resources to manage security.
Editing by David Adams and Jackie Frank