PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier faced corruption and human rights charges in a court on Thursday for the first time since a popular revolt forced him into exile in 1986, and denied responsibility for abuses under his 15-year rule.
Individual government officials “had their own authority” the 61-year-old Duvalier said when asked about his role as head of state from 1971 to 1986.
“Under my authority, children could go to school, there was no insecurity,” he told the court.
Duvalier had boycotted three previous court hearings, and Appeals Court Judge Jean-Joseph Lebrun responded to his last failure to appear a week ago by issuing a warrant ordering prosecutors to ensure his presence for Thursday’s hearing, under police escort if necessary.
Duvalier, dressed in a navy blue suit and tie, quietly slipped into the courthouse unescorted early on Thursday, arriving in his own car several hours before the hearing started accompanied by his longtime companion Veronique Roy.
Hundreds of Duvalier supporters gathered outside the courthouse soon after his arrival, chanting “Long Live Duvalier.”
The pre-trial hearing was held to determine what charges Duvalier may have to face, and it is the first time he has personally been obliged to address crimes allegedly committed during his rule.
The case is being closely watched by international human rights observers who consider it a landmark case for Haiti’s weak justice system after decades of dictatorship, military rule and economic mayhem.
“Duvalier got away with everything all his life, and now he’s being forced to face his victims across a courtroom,” said Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch.
“It’s a powerful message. This is the sort of thing that could restore Haitian faith that justice is possible,” he added.
Several people who said they were victims of Duvalier’s rule attended the hearing and voiced satisfaction that he had finally appeared in court.
“He will have to face history in court, just like other dictators around the world are facing,” said Alix Fils-Aime, who was imprisoned by Duvalier’s government.
Reynold Georges, who heads Duvalier’s legal team, argued unsuccessfully at a hearing last week that his client’s presence in court was not required.
Duvalier was briefly detained on charges of corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds after returning to the impoverished Caribbean nation in January 2011 following a 25-year exile in France. Those charges are still pending.
Separate charges of crimes against humanity filed by alleged victims of wrongful imprisonment, forced disappearances and torture under Duvalier, were set aside by an investigating judge last year because the statute of limitations had run out.
But the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has warned Haitian authorities that there is no statute of limitations under international law for serious violations of human rights.
“I encourage the judicial authorities to act on their responsibilities and ensure the victims are provided with the long overdue justice they deserve,” Pillay said in a statement last week.
Critics say prosecutors have been too lenient in Duvalier’s case. President Michel Martelly’s government recently renewed Duvalier’s diplomatic passport, saying he was entitled to it as a former head of state.
Duvalier, who inherited the title “President For Life” at the age of 19, is alleged to have fled Haiti with more than $100 million stashed in European bank accounts in 1986 after street demonstrations and riots broke out in a number of cities.
His departure ended nearly three decades of dictatorship begun by his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, in 1957.
The Duvaliers enforced their rule with the aid of a feared militia, the National Security Volunteers, better known as the “Tonton Macoutes,” who were blamed for hundreds of deaths and disappearances.
Soon after he returned to Haiti in 2011, taking up residence in a villa in a posh suburb in the hills above the capital Port-au-Prince, Duvalier issued a brief apology “to those countrymen who rightly feel they were victims of my government,” the first ever public recognition of abuses under his rule.
While in exile Duvalier acknowledged privately that killers in his government went unpunished, according to Bernard Diederich, a New Zealand-born journalist and author of several books on Haiti, including a biography of the younger Duvalier.
“He always passed the blame to others,” said Diederich, who conducted four long interviews with Duvalier in the late 1990s.
Writing by David Adams and Tom Brown; Editing by Paul Simao