Canada, and Haiti’s justice system

by Roger Annis

Yesterday, our delegation met with the commissioner (“Commissaire”) of the West Department of Haiti, the department that includes Port au Prince. He is a very busy man, but graciously gave us a half hour of his time.

The commissioners are the representatives in each of Haiti’s ten department of the office of the President. They are responsible for the functioning and delivery of services by the state, especially of its justice ministry. Mr. Gassant gave us an overview of the difficulties and challenges of the justice system as he experiences it.

“Our government is definitely concerned about human rights in Haiti,” he began. “Despite all of our work, it is difficult to get the institutions of the country to respect the law. We have come to the conclusion that many in the police do not understand the law, nor does much of the public. Human rights groups that come here to investigate are not touching the foundation of our problems if they do not look into the institutional problems.”

According to the commissioner, a very high percentage of people held in Haiti’s prisons are there illegally. (He used the figure 97%. In an earlier report, I reported the estimate of a human rights lawyer that there are an estimated 2500 prisoners in the West Department, of whom perhaps 80% are illegally detained.) One example of illegality is that an accused must appear before a judge within forty eight hours of his or her incarceration in order to confirm the person is charged according to provisions of the penal code and there is sufficient reason for detention. Another is that arrests must be accompanied by a warrant, unless a person is caught in the act of committing a crime.

Commissioner Gassant reports widespread abuse of the arrest process. Police do not obtain warrants in many cases. They report the number of arrests regularly to the media, but they don’t provide corresponding figures for warrants. The commissioner’s office has asked for weekly arrest reports, but the police often refuse to provide them. So, his office sends magistrates into the police stations, and they often discover people detained illegally for weeks or months at a time.

Another measure the office has taken is to provide a phone service where police must report arrests. The service is open seven days per week, 24 hours a day, so that police cannot have an excuse to not report.

The Commissioner considers the conditions inside Haiti’s prisons unacceptable, in violation of the international conventions to which Haiti is a signatory. His office has taken measures to speed up the examination of charges and the holding of trials. (I reported earlier that 150 people have been freed in the past two weeks under this program.)

Another problem in the system is that when judges correct the abuses of police, the police will turn to the media and whip up prejudice against the judge or the judicial system, accusing it of being lax in the treatment of criminals. (Does this sound familiar to Canadians?) Thus, people in the justice system are intimidated from doing their job correctly.

The Commissioner defended the use of the criminal charge of belonging to an “association de malfaiteurs” (belonging to a gang). This is a serious criminal charge in Haiti, and proof of association can be as loose as associating with someone who possesses an illegal weapon or a stolen vehicle, or who meets to discuss a possible criminal action such as theft or kidnapping. Obviously, under the conditions described above, such a provision is widely abused by police, mayors or others with powers of arrest.

On top of all these problems must be added the systemic problems of corruption in the system caused, among other things, but the terrible salaries and poor conditions of work of those in the system.

So what does all this have to do with Canada? The government of Canada tells the Canadian public that it is making a big effort in Haiti to improve the judicial system. Its national police trains the Haitian National Police, and often accompany it in its work. Photos on the wall of the Canadian embassy display exclusively Canada’s police role in Haiti. CIDA and other federal government agencies direct funding and other resources into this troubled judicial system.

More than this, the government tells its public that progress is being made, albeit slowly. This is small consolation to the thousands of Haitians sitting in prison thanks to a Canadian imposed and funded system.

A key source of the crisis in Haiti’s judicial system is to be found in the coup of February 29, 2004 against Haiti’s elected government. The coup was a body blow to the police and judicial system in Haiti. Progress in improving both was made during the Preval and Aristide governments from 1996 to 2004.

The government of Aristide elected in 2000 offered a real possibility of fundamental change in Haitian society by opening the door wider to political organization and action, over time, of the mass organizations of the Haitian people and their joining the political process. A foreign intervention that disrupted and destroyed this process is bearing its bitter and inevitable fruit in the continued violations of basic democratic and human rights.

Canada is proving to be a part of the problem here, as it has since the year 2000 when it and its allies took the brutal decision to cut bilateral aid to Haiti and its struggling democracy and set in motion the events leading to February 29, 2004. So what needs to change? Start by stopping interference in Haiti’s internal affairs. Then provide to Haiti’s sovereign institutions the massive resources needed to build an economy and social infrastructure.