Haiti Papers Over the Past: The Rebranding of 'Baby Doc' Duvalier

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Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Exiled former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier (C) leaves the civil court house with his wife Veronique Roy in Port-au-Prince, January 18, 2011.

On Jan. 30, more than a year after former "President for Life" Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti, a Port-au-Prince judge concluded his lengthy investigation into the ex-dictator's brutal, 1971-86 rule. Supreme Court Magistrate Carvès Jean had at his disposal reams of documents, human rights complaints, testimony from torture victims, copies of checks, international bank transfers and diary entries from former political prisoners at the notorious Fort Dimanche prison. Yet while Jean ruled that Duvalier should be tried on financial corruption charges — for the hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly plundered from Haiti's national coffers — he decided the statute of limitations on Duvalier's crimes against humanity had expired.

The U.K.-based Amnesty International spoke for most human rights groups worldwide when it called Jean's dismissal of the torture and murder charges against Duvalier "a disgrace." Some of Duvalier's alleged victims, including national soccer hero Bobby Duval and former U.N. Secretary-General spokesperson Michèle Montas, have vowed to appeal the ruling — citing, for one thing, Haiti's ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights, which puts the country under the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Under international law, there is no time limit on crimes against humanity.

But other victims weren't so surprised by Jean's ruling. "I had no doubt, not even for a fraction of a second," says former parliamentary deputy Alix Fils-Aimé, who was held in solitary confinement by Duvalier's secret police for 16 months and then at Fort Dimanche before being exiled. "I have no faith in [Haiti's] justice system." And that's especially true, critics like Fils-Aimé fear, when it comes to the handling of Duvalier. Few countries, especially after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than an estimated 200,000 people, have as troubling an image problem to solve as Haiti does. And the last thing the national re-brandingcampaign of President Michel Martelly needs is an ugly, protracted trial that would remind the world of the 30,000 Haitians abducted, tortured and killed by the regimes of "Baby Doc" Duvalier and his more ruthless father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who ruled from 1957 until his death in 1971.

As a result, a big question is whether Martelly's efforts to market the idea of a new Haiti — one that is open for investment, tourism and modernization — include sweeping away the atrocities of the Duvalier dynasty like so much quake rubble. Another is whether otherwise well-intentioned U.S. celebrities like Haiti's new Ambassador-at-Large, Hollywood actor and humanitarian Sean Penn, have signed on with that controversial approach.

Martelly, a former carnival singer who wants to revive Haiti's defunct military, has spoken fondly of the iron-fisted Duvalier era, and during his first year in office he's appointed numerous Duvalier sympathizers to high-level positions in his government. Since Duvalier showed up in Haiti in January 2011 after 25 years in luxurious French exile — he thought, mistakenly, that returning might persuade authorities in Switzerland to unfreeze some $6 million he has there — Martelly has made friendly visits to the ex-despot at his suburban Port-au-Prince home. On the earthquake's second anniversary last month, the President even invited Duvalier to sit in the front row of a state memorial service. Following that commemoration, Duvalier shook hands with international dignitaries mere steps from where tens of thousands of victims of the Duvalier dictatorships are buried.

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