Surrounded by razor-sharp barbed wire, dozens of American armored vehicles and hundreds of U.S. soldiers, Haiti's Parliament convened Wednesday for the first time in 16 months, taking a symbolic step toward the restoration of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.
The Senate and Chamber of Deputies were summoned by Aristide--who remains in Washington--under an agreement negotiated 11 days ago by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to return the Haitian leader and remove the military regime that overthrew him on Sept. 30, 1991.
The Parliament is to write a law to ensure that the army, including Commander in Chief Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, and the police chief in Port-au-Prince, Lt. Col. Michel-Joseph Francois, will be protected from prosecution for staging the coup.
In exchange, the three leaders will resign no later than Oct. 15, and Aristide will return to finish his term, which ends in February, 1996.
The Parliament--usually inefficient and raucous and sometimes violent--was merely slow and ineffective Wednesday, dillydallying for two hours and 10 minutes past the scheduled opening time of 2 p.m. and adjourning after 50 minutes of non-activity.
Legislative leaders indicated that they were in no hurry to move along with either the amnesty legislation or five other proposals related to Aristide's return and the weakening of the military's power. Indeed, it was unclear even when the next session will be held.
In reality, it doesn't matter whether Parliament passes the amnesty measure anytime soon--or at all--because the Carter agreement requires Cedras and the others to resign when the bill is approved or by Oct. 15, whichever comes first.
As thousands of Haitians were kept at bay in front of the squat white building by the American soldiers and the treacherous wire, it was also unclear as the Parliament opened what type of law will be drafted.
A draft proposing only limited immunity, written last October when it was believed that Aristide was coming back soon, is one possibility. However, some experts expect that a commission will be appointed to draw up a more liberal bill.
The Wednesday session had the added, confusing ingredients of legislators returning from exile or coming out of hiding and a challenge by a group of senators who were excluded by the Americans on the grounds that their elections in January, 1993, were illegal.
The "legal" senators and deputies who had gone into hiding or forced exile after being threatened by the military when they last tried to meet almost a year ago emerged only at the last minute.
Most of the crowds gathered by the barricades shouted slogans favoring Aristide and against attempts by the excluded senators to enter. They also taunted the few Haitian police nearby, chanting: "You can't shoot, you can't shoot."
Although a few picket signs against Aristide appeared, a boycott of the session by his legislative opponents fizzled when 11 of the 17 authenticated senators and 50 of the 82 deputies showed, making a quorum.
The tedium of the wait for the opening ceremony, signaled by the doffing of a black fedora by the presiding officer, was interrupted by gunfire a few blocks away.
A small crowd of pro-Aristide demonstrators chanting anti-Cedras slogans was attacked by gunmen in a car as the marchers headed toward a downtown bar and office run by a paramilitary group called the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or FRAPH.
One man, shot in the chest, was critically wounded, and some other demonstrators were also wounded. The shooting sent the U.S. soldiers guarding the Parliament diving for cover and many of the thousands of watchers scurrying away.
American troops, armed with photographs and aided by Haitian spotters, were ordered to keep the "illegals," as the excluded senators were dubbed by U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager, from entering.
This appearance of foreign control, reinforced by searches and seizures of weapons from the entering senators and deputies, brought howls of rage from some legislators and their fellow Aristide foes.
Frantz-Robert Monde, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, complained bitterly about the barbed wire and the seizure of his handgun when he tried to enter the legislature Tuesday evening.
"This is an outrage, a violation of national sovereignty," Monde told a reporter Wednesday. "This is as bad as August, 1991," when a pro-Aristide mob besieged the Parliament to prevent a vote of censure against Aristide's prime minister, Rene Preval.
It was that demonstration that galvanized the military and its civilian attaches to overthrow the country's first democratically elected president.
Even pro-Aristide legislators complained about Wednesday's security measures, which required anyone entering the Parliament to undergo identification checks and searches by U.S. soldiers.
A spokesman for the National Front for the Concentration of Democracy, a loose coalition of pro-Aristide parties, said the security was excessive. One deputy, who asked not to be named, said: "This embarrasses us. It makes it look like we are puppets of the Americans."
The opening session took place in the sauna-like Chamber of Deputies, which was crowded with the 61 senators and deputies who showed up, plus dozens of diplomats, government officials and reporters massed overhead on a balcony.
The session opened against a background of apprehension and even spreading violence in the streets outside.
Before the afternoon shooting near the FRAPH office, another man, reportedly a security agent of the military, was killed by a morning mob in the shanty slum of Cite Soleil, while hundreds of looters stormed a food warehouse on the edge of downtown.
Reporters witnessed at least two men being beaten with wrecking bars and wooden clubs.
The men escaped, bloody but alive, by diving into a huge pothole filled three feet deep with a greenish slime.
Another pro-Aristide mob tried to break into the office of the Democrats for the Rescue of the Republic, another anti-Aristide group that is a remnant of the political party created by the Duvalier dynasty that ruled Haiti from 1954 to 1986.
As the looting and demonstrations seem to stay one step ahead of U.S. efforts to curb violence, the escalating trouble has American diplomats and military officers worried.
Today will present a further challenge as American troops reinstall Evans Paul as Port-au-Prince mayor. Paul, a wildly popular figure among the city's poor, has been in semi-hiding since army and civilian thugs tried to kill him last year.
Popular organizations have called on their followers to fill the streets today to celebrate Paul's installation and to practice for even larger demonstrations Friday, the third anniversary of the anti-Aristide coup.
In a related development Wednesday, U.S. Army and Marine troops in the northern city of Cap Haitien, acting on a request from Cedras, exhumed the bodies of 10 Haitian policemen killed in a gun battle with Marines on Saturday night.
U.S. military officials said they were simply "doing a courtesy" for Cedras, who asked that the bodies be brought today to Port-au-Prince for burial with full military honors.
About 2,000 people gathered around the main Cap Haitien cemetery as the bodies were removed. They shouted obscenities at two Haitian army officials from Port-au-Prince who witnessed the exhumations, and they later rushed into the cemetery and yelled epithets at the open graves.
Times staff writer Richard A. Serrano in Cap Haitien contributed to this report.
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