PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Rights groups demanded on Monday that Haiti arrest former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier for crimes against humanity after his surprise return from 25 years in exile, which strained an edgy political atmosphere in the volatile Caribbean state.
Analysts said the arrival in Port-au-Prince on Sunday of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who fled his homeland in 1986 to escape a popular revolt, could only complicate the climate of nervous uncertainty in earthquake-battered Haiti.
Tensions in the impoverished nation are running high after chaotic and inconclusive November 28 elections.
“Duvalier’s return to Haiti should be for one purpose only: to face justice,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said Duvalier, 59, should be brought to trial for the killings and torture of thousands of opponents at the hands of the thuggish Tonton Macoutes militia during his 15 years in power.
Amnesty called those acts “crimes against humanity.”
Responding to the demands for Duvalier’s arrest, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said the government was “not at ease” with the former dictator’s return.
But he added that since Haiti’s constitution bans exile, Duvalier had the right to return to his homeland, even though his diplomatic passport issued in 2005 had expired.
“If there are judicial procedures against him, the justice system will have to do what it has to do,” Bellerive said.
He told reporters there were “ongoing judicial issues” between the government and Duvalier.
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.
The return of Duvalier was a cause of concern for Caribbean Community ministers meeting in Georgetown, Guyana.
“The return of Baby Doc could be an unwelcome distraction in the current volatile situation and just when the international community is trying desperately to sustain the fragile security gains in recent years,” Grenada’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Deneth Modeste, said.
Reactions in Haiti ranged from delight among old Duvalierists, anger from victims of his rule and speculation his visit was some kind of distraction tactic in the current political crisis.
“It is sad to see people cheering ‘Long live Duvalier!’ ... It was a fierce dictatorship. Duvalier must pay for all those crimes,” said Pierre Esperance, a local human rights activist.
France’s ambassador to Haiti, Didier Le Bret, said he hoped Duvalier would return to France “as soon as possible” so as not to jeopardize Haiti’s already controversial electoral process.
At a hotel in Port-au-Prince’s Petionville district where Duvalier and his French wife, Veronique Roy, were staying, the ex-dictator received old friends and former officials. Indian U.N. police guarded the entrance to the hotel.
It was not immediately clear how long Duvalier would stay, although some reports said he planned only a short visit.
“We his friends asked him to come because we wanted to see him,” Henry Robert Sterling, Duvalier’s former ambassador to France, told reporters.
Hundreds of supporters were at the airport on Sunday to greet Duvalier, who flew on an Air France flight from Paris.
As a chubby playboy and the world’s youngest head of state at 19, Duvalier assumed power in Haiti in 1971 on the death of his father, feared dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. “Baby Doc” continued the Duvalier dynasty, which inspired fear and loathing among many, until going into exile in France in 1986.
Duvalier said on Sunday he had returned to show solidarity with the people of Haiti, the poorest state in the Western Hemisphere, which is grappling with a cholera epidemic and struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake. He said he wanted to participate in Haiti’s “rebirth.”
Analysts said his return could not come at a worse time for Haiti, which is on edge after confused legislative and presidential elections in November. Preliminary voting results have triggered fraud allegations and violent street protests.
“As if Haiti’s politics weren’t turbulent enough already, the presence of the former dictator is likely to arouse strong passions across the political spectrum,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
Shifter said Duvalier’s reappearance could prompt another controversial former president, firebrand ex-Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to try to return from his exile in South Africa. Aristide fled an armed rebellion in 2004.
Bellerive said Aristide could also return if he wanted.
Duvalier had faced accusations of corruption and human rights abuses when he fled the country in 1986 during massive street protests and diplomatic pressure from Washington.
Duvalier’s return adds a divisive figure to Haiti’s politics, just days after it commemorated the first anniversary of the 2010 quake that killed more than 300,000 people.
The outcome of the U.N.-backed November 28 elections is up in the air after Organization of American States experts last week delivered a report to outgoing President Rene Preval challenging preliminary official results.
Preval has said he has reservations about the methodology of the OAS report he himself requested. It recommends Preval protege Jude Celestin be eliminated from a second-round runoff in favor of popular musician Michel Martelly.
OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza traveled to Haiti on Monday for talks with Preval, who has been accused by opponents of rigging the elections.
The OAS report, which said there were significant vote tally irregularities, confirmed opposition matriarch Mirlande Manigat as the candidate with most first-round votes. She remains in the runoff but it is unclear when it will be held.
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.
Additional reporting by Neil Marks in Georgetown, Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney