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Ex-Head of Duvalier Militia Given Life Term for Haiti Coup Attempt

<i> From Associated Press</i>

The former head of the Duvalier family’s brutal private militia was convicted Tuesday of leading a coup attempt and was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor.

Many Haitians viewed the trial of Roger Lafontant, a doctor who became one of the ousted dictatorship’s most feared henchmen, as a symbol of the final demise of Duvalier rule.

But Lafontant, 55, scoffed at the rushed proceedings--a 20-hour session, carried live by state television and radio--and refused to testify or be represented by a court-appointed lawyer.

The 12-member jury heard testimony virtually nonstop from about two dozen witnesses and then deliberated through the night. It delivered its verdicts at dawn.

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Lafontant’s 21 accused accomplices were all found guilty as well. Four of them were sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor. The rest, like Lafontant, were sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor.

Life imprisonment was the maximum sentence Lafontant could have received. Haiti’s 1987 constitution abolished the death penalty.

The trial centered on a failed attempt Jan. 6 by Lafontant and his rightist supporters to overthrow the interim government of President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot and prevent Jean-Bertrand Aristide from assuming the presidency.

The coup attempt was foiled by loyalist soldiers.

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Aristide, a leftist Roman Catholic priest and ardent anti-Duvalierist, was elected by a landslide Dec. 16 in Haiti’s first fully democratic elections, and inaugurated Feb. 7.

Although the charges against Lafontant concerned only the coup attempt, the verdict was widely regarded as partial retribution for the Duvaliers’ three decades of repression.

“Justice at last has been done in this country,” said Information Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue.

“It was not only the trial of a man but of a system; it was the funeral of Macoutism,” she said. She referred to Lafontant’s leadership of the Tontons Macoutes, the dreaded network of extortionists and assassins that enforced the rule of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier and his father, the late Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.

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The dynasty ended when the younger Duvalier fled into exile in France on Feb. 7, 1986, after a popular uprising.

Lafontant, who served as minister of the interior and defense from 1982 to 1985, has been linked by human-rights groups with numerous abuses, including the torture of political prisoners.


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