PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti on Tuesday briefly detained former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, back from exile in France, and charged him with corruption, theft and abuses of power allegedly committed during his 15-year rule.
While a noisy crowd of his supporters protested outside the prosecutor’s office, Duvalier, 59, was questioned over accusations that he stole public funds and committed human rights abuses after taking over as president in 1971.
Port-au-Prince Chief Prosecutor Aristidas Auguste said his office had filed charges against Duvalier of corruption, theft, misappropriation of funds and other alleged crimes committed during the former president’s 1971-1986 period in power.
“His fate is now in the hands of the investigating judge. We have brought charges against him,” Auguste told Reuters.
The charges must now be investigated by the judge who will decide whether a criminal case should go ahead.
After several hours of questioning, he left the prosecutor’s office but was ordered to remain in the country at the disposition of judicial authorities. “He doesn’t have the right to go anywhere,” investigating judge Carves Jean said.
Duvalier, who fled Haiti in 1986 during a popular uprising, was earlier escorted by heavily armed police from the luxury hotel where he had stayed since his unexpected arrival on Sunday from France, after a quarter century in exile.
Smartly dressed in a blue suit and tie, but looking frail, he waved and smiled briefly to supporters at the hotel. The chubby cheeks that he had as a 19-year-old when he took power as the world’s youngest head of state 25 years ago have sagged, showing the passage of time.
The former dictator’s return to his earthquake-battered Caribbean homeland, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state, was a shock to Haitians and to foreign governments. The country is in the midst of a political crisis caused by chaotic and inconclusive elections held on November 28.
The political uncertainty comes on top of an ongoing cholera epidemic that has killed more than 3,800 people and efforts to rebuild the crippled nation after the huge earthquake a year ago that claimed more than 316,000 lives.
Human rights groups welcomed the detention but urged the Haitian authorities to fully investigate the full range of accusations against Duvalier.
Amnesty International Special Adviser Javier Zuniga said Duvalier, while ruling as “President-for-Life,” had presided over a security apparatus which “carried out widespread and systematic human rights violations including torture, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances.”
He said some of these abuses by state-employed thugs known as “Tonton Macoutes” amounted to “crimes against humanity.”
“A cycle of impunity has prevailed for decades in Haiti, with victims of abuses and their families denied justice for way too long — now the opportunity has come for justice, truth and reparations,” Zuniga said.
Haitian authorities in the past have accused Duvalier and his clan of plundering state coffers of several hundred million dollars and hiding the money abroad. There have been moves in Swiss courts to recover some of the money.
As Duvalier was questioned, a crowd of more than 100 noisy supporters chanting “Long Live Duvalier!” demonstrated outside the prosecutor’s office, setting up at least one burning barricade. Police blocked off the building.
Earlier, when he was driven from his hotel under police guard, some supporters shouting “Free Duvalier! Free Duvalier!” chased the police vehicle taking him away, and some tried to block its path with burning tires. The convoy evaded them.
Since his arrival in Haiti on Sunday, human rights groups have demanded the government arrest and prosecute Duvalier — one of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators.
As a chubby teenage playboy, Duvalier assumed power in Haiti in 1971 on the death of his father, feared dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled with a reign of terror over a country where voodoo beliefs remain widespread.
Foreign governments trying to help Haiti steer through its electoral crisis said they were worried that Duvalier’s return was an unwelcome and unneeded distraction.
The U.S. State Department said Duvalier’s fate was a matter for the Haitian government and people to decide. “Having a former dictator return to Haiti just adds to Haiti’s ongoing burden,” spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.
Earlier, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Haiti’s former and current leaders should focus on successfully completing the elections and reconstructing the country.
There were mixed reactions among Haitians to Duvalier’s detention. “If there’s justice in the country, it’s working, but if there’s impunity, that’s a problem,” said Toussaint Evul, 29, selling sunglasses outside the prosecutor’s office.
Bystander Guy Claude Geffard, 32, said: “It’s not right that after 25 years outside the country he comes back home and they arrest him. There are many people in the country who have committed crimes and they didn’t arrest them.”
Duvalier said on Sunday he had returned to show solidarity with Haiti and wanted to participate in its “rebirth.”
But analysts say his return could not come at a worse time for Haiti, which is on edge after the confused November 28 legislative and presidential elections. Preliminary results released last month triggered fraud allegations and violent street protests.
A team of Organization of American States experts have carried out a verification of the contested results and have challenged them in a report presented to outgoing Haitian President Rene Preval.
The report, which cites significant vote tally irregularities, recommends Preval protege Jude Celestin be eliminated from an election runoff in favor of popular musician Michel Martelly.
Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council, the elections authority, must decide whether to accept the OAS recommendation to include Martelly and drop Celestin in the runoff, which will include opposition matriarch Mirlande Manigat. Manigat received most votes in the first round but not enough to win outright.
Additional reporting by Allyn Gaestel in Port-au-Prince and Arshad Mohammed and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Eric Walsh