Last week, a Haitian judge ruled that former dictatorJean-Claude Duvaliershould not stand trial for human rights abuses — not for lack of evidence but because the statute of limitations had expired. That decision must be overruled.
Of course Duvalier should be prosecuted for atrocities committed during his brutal 15-year rule. There are plenty of victims willing to recount the beatings, arbitrary arrests and prolonged detentions they suffered. There is a trove of evidence detailing how Duvalier’s army and shadowy secret police force, the Tontons Macoutes, killed and tortured untold numbers of civilians.
And the fact is that there are international conventions — to which Haiti is a signatory — that require it to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by Duvalier and his government. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and even the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged the country’s courts to respect its international obligations and put Duvalier on trial. International law makes it clear that when it comes to crimes against humanity, there can be no statute of limitations.
Duvalier held power from 1971 to 1986. He went into exile but returned last year and was placed under house arrest. Charges were filed by then-President Rene Preval’s government.
Much of the blame for last week’s legal charade belongs to Haiti’s current president, Michel Martelly, who has filled his administration with former officials from the Duvalier era. His government has done all it can to quash the case, appointing prosecutors who refused to interview victims, who withheld complaints from the court because, they argued, those cases were too old, and who ultimately sought dismissal of all charges. In the end, the magistrate ruled that Duvalier should face trial for corruption but not for the human rights charges.
Martelly argues that such trials will only divide the country by resurrecting the past. Surely he can’t be so disconnected from reality as to think that those who survived Duvalier’s bloody regime have forgotten, or that those who lost parents, siblings or children have stopped mourning the dead. If Martelly wants to put the past to rest, the way to do it is by allowing the truth to come out.