Haitian judge says Duvalier must appear at human rights hearing

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - An appeals court judge ordered former Haitian President Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier to appear in court later this month on human rights allegations following a raucous hearing on the issue on Thursday.

Duvalier, 61, the country’s former “president for life,” returned to Haiti in January 2011 after 25 years of exile and was briefly detained on charges of corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds.

A separate set of charges of crimes against humanity filed by people who charged they were victims of wrongful imprisonment and torture and who said their family members “disappeared” under Duvalier, were set aside by an investigating judge last year who ruled the statute of limitations had run out.

Duvalier appealed the corruption charges, and the civil complainants appealed the judge’s dismissal of human rights abuse charges.

The former dictator defied a court order to appear in court on Thursday, instead providing his defense with a lengthy letter explaining his absence, noting that the date of the hearing coincided with the anniversary of his overthrow in 1987, a date, he wrote, in which “the greatest political crimes were committed in this country.”

Duvalier’s flight into exile marked the end of nearly three decades of dictatorship begun by his father, François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.

When the date for his appearance was set at the previous hearing, Duvalier’s chief counsel, Reynold Georges, declared that February 7 was a “beautiful date” and would not present a problem.

Even without Duvalier’s presence, Thursday’s court scene was lively. Members of Duvalier’s legal team frequently spoke out of turn, citing the illegitimacy of the appeal by the “so-called civil complainants,” and attempted to have one alleged victim of torture and imprisonment by Duvalier’s security forces removed from the courtroom.

During hours of heated exchanges, the appeals court prosecutor, Florence Mathieu, and Duvalier’s legal team both argued that any appeal to hear crimes against humanity charges should be dismissed due to improper procedure. The proceedings ended when Judge Jean Joseph Lebrun scheduled a new hearing for February 21.

Duvalier was ordered to appear before the court for questioning on both corruption charges and alleged human rights abuses.

“We’re comfortable with the decision of the appeals court,” said Mario Joseph, one of the lawyers representing Duvalier’s victims. Several of his clients were in the courtroom to observe the hearing.

“There was pressure from the exterior to influence the position of the judges,” said Frizto Canton, one of the lawyers representing Duvalier. Both he and Georges alleged that the decision to acknowledge the civil complainants was a political one. “We are adamant that the rule of law should have pre-eminence,” Canton said.

Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney