When former Oakland resident, now Haiti-based filmmaker Kevin Pina and Haitian journalist Jean Ristil Jean-Baptiste were arrested Sept. 9 in Port-au-Prince while covering a police search of the home of a political prisoner/possible presidential candidate, the wheels of justice ground forward.
That’s rare in Haiti these days.
Freeing Pina and Ristil took action from Rep. Barbara Lee, e-mails from across the U.S. to Haiti’s justice minister, condemnation from a non-neutral Port-au-Prince press corps and pressure from U.S. Embassy officials.
Victims of Haitian police and U.N. military violence do not have access to such clout; neither do the some 1,000 political prisoners incarcerated mostly without charges and the kids stuffed into the children’s jail.
Pina, whose frequent reports on Haiti can be heard on KPFA’s Flashpoints, got a tip Sept. 9 that police were searching the home of Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste; Associated Press stringer Ristil also got the tip; both were at the St. Claire Church rectory to report on the search. Pina went inside.
The police search of the priest’s living quarters was a particularly newsworthy event. Jean-Juste had been jailed since July 21 without charges, incarcerated after interim government officials accused him of murder. Around the time of the search, Lavalas leaders—Lavalas is the political party of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, forced out of Haiti’s presidency by U.S. officials Feb. 29, 2004—were calling on the jailed cleric to accept the party’s nomination for president. (As it turned out, the Haitian government squelched the candidacy, saying Jean-Juste had to be present at the election office to submit his name.)
As Pina tells it, the judge overseeing the search told police to confiscate the journalist’s camera. Pina held onto the camera and the judge ordered his arrest on suspicion of “disrespecting a magistrate.” Ristil alerted Pina’s friends of the arrest via cell phone, then was also taken into custody.
Along with other journalists, a Bay Area human rights delegation and Pina’s friends, I got to the jail Friday night a couple of hours after the arrest. Pina wore the detention, which he said was unjust, as a badge of honor, even crooning “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” and vociferously criticizing guards for their lack of nametags.
Ristil was more shaken by the incarceration. “I was doing my job,” he said through tears.
The journalists were kept through the weekend, though after a visit from U.S. embassy folks, were moved to a “V.I.P.” cell, which had beds, color T.V., and access to a cell phone. They shared the cell with police officers accused of murder.
Monday, the judge, who showed up at 1 p.m. for the 11 a.m. hearing, spent the afternoon arguing against the release, but finally assented. Pina and Ristil were represented by Mario Joseph, attorney for many of the country’s high-profile political prisoners; Guy Delva, a Reuters reporter who heads the Haitian Journalist Association and Alfred de Montesquiou, representing the Associated Press, which employs Ristil, attended the hearing to defend press freedom. Other press and the public were excluded.
The pair walked free around 5:30 p.m. Justice had been slow, unfair jail time had been served, but in the end, justice won the day.
That was the first and last time I saw signs of justice during my two-week stay in Haiti.
Drive around Port-au-Prince and injustice jolts you like a Caribbean lightning storm. Masked police with guns appear from time to time along heavily trafficked corridors, peering into cars—looking for whom? Tanks carrying rifle-ready U.N. soldiers rumble through the narrow streets as if to claim them as their own.
The streets of Bel Air, a shantytown whose avenues once bustled with vendors selling anything they could to eke out their hard-scrabble lives, now echo an eerie quiet, save for the lumbering U.N. tanks. “People are moving out of Bel Air,” one man told me, pointing to a neighbor’s vacant home. “And the market women have gone to Petionville,” a well-heeled suburb above Port-au-Prince.
You can’t blame them—who would want to live and work under foreign occupation? But most people in Bel Air have nowhere to go.
One afternoon I was in Bel Air with radio journalist Hervé Aubin of Radio Indigène and two Bay Area human rights workers, Ben Terrall of San Francisco and Sr. Stella Goodpasture of Oakland. A group of young men, seeing us speak with a neighborhood leader, called us over and asked for help. U.N. troops had opened fire during a demonstration earlier that day. No one was reported killed or wounded, but six of their friends had been arrested.
The demonstration was called to support Fr. Jean-Juste’s candidacy for president. Demonstrators from Bel Air planned to meet up with demonstrators from Cité Soleil, the capital’s largest shantytown. They would march together to the elections office, where the candidature papers would be submitted.
But in a show of force that angered the protesters, the U.N. with its guns and tanks prevented the separate demonstrations from merging. “I have only 150 soldiers with me,” Capt. Leonidas Carneiro, who commands the Brazilian troops in Bel Air, would say later. “One hundred fifty is not enough.”
The young men feared the worst for their arrested friends, as detainees are often beaten and sometimes found in the morgue. Apparently the men thought we, as foreigners and press, might be able to prevent such an eventuality.
Over at the Fort National lock-up, we were not permitted to see the prisoners, but we did have an opportunity to chat with Capt. Carneiro.
We explained the fears of the detainees’ friends. “You know that the police beat and even kill prisoners, don’t you?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered, affirming press reports and interviews. The captain underscored, however, that police under his command are well-trained and law-abiding. U.N. Security Council’s Resolution 1608 of June 22 placed the Haitian National Police under U.N. control.
Carneiro said his officers opened fire only after a demonstrator was sighted with a pistol and his soldiers were pelted with stones. They arrested “the guys with stones in their hands,” Carneiro said, and also the young person thought to have had the pistol whom they found hiding under a bed.
The next day Bel Air residents reported seven new arrests there, and said five of the six arrested the day before at the demonstration had been freed. The one who continued to be detained, a 15-year-old, was sent to the children’s prison. If his case is treated like that of other children I saw in that jail, he is likely remain there a long time.
The children’s jail, which I had visited a few days earlier with Sr. Stella Goodpasture, is located just behind the holding cell where Pina and Ristil were incarcerated. It is probably the saddest place I’ve ever seen.
Four small cells sit in a row, each about 8 by 10 feet, just big enough to fit three bunk beds in a U-shape. The cells are dark, with light penetrating only through the barred cell door. There are 16 boys crowded in each cell; at least three of the 64 children are as young as 10.
I spoke to each of the boys in the first cell. One 16-year-old had been in jail since July 5, 2004, picked up in a police “operation.” This is what they call a police sweep of the poor pro-Aristide areas. Like 80 percent of those I spoke to, he said he had never been brought before a judge to be arraigned, as the Haitian constitution requires.
Another boy, 17, had been incarcerated since July 21, 2004, accused of being a “bandit.” He had not seen a judge. Another 17-year-old has been in jail since Sept. 24, 2004. He had been in a fight during which he injured someone with a rock. “The only one to help me to be released is God,” he said.
A 15-year-old from Bel Air, was picked up May 29, 2004 for smoking marijuana; A 14-year-old had been incarcerated since May 12, 2004, accused of gang affiliation. Another 14-year-old, incarcerated since Dec. 5, 2004, was picked up in a police sweep.
One guard told me many were incarcerated for “preventive detention.” Several of the boys who had hearings said the judge asked for large sums of money for their freedom—as much as $5,000. None complained of poor treatment—the guards walked out of earshot during the interviews—but several said police had beaten them at the time of arrest. They get no medical attention, although the Red Cross has been there to see them. They get out of their cells for a shower every day and have a couple of hours “recreation” in a small yard—they can use a toilet when they shower or recreate and have a common bucket they use at other times. None have legal representation.
If there’s a lesson in all this, it may be that justice in Haiti under this unelected government is distributed in proportion to the pressure of eyes and e-mails. Were it not so, the kids in the children’s jail, Jean-Juste and the 1,000 other political prisoners, the Lavalas adherents in hiding within and outside the country, would be as free as Pina and Ristil, who, it should be noted, watch their backs at all times.