Lost in the Fog

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ENVELOPED: In Port-au-Prince, women walk through smoke from burning garbage

A rebel leader, convicted in absentia of taking part in mass murder, turns himself in. A big win for the rule of law? Not in Haiti. When Louis Jodel Chamblain handed himself over to Haitian police on April 22, it was 10 years to the day after the paramilitary squad he once helped direct massacred at least 15 people in the seaside slum of Raboteau. The victims, many of whom were tortured and made to lie in open sewers before being shot, were supporters of then Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been ousted in a 1991 military coup. U.S. troops restored Aristide to power in 1994, and Chamblain, who fled Haiti, was convicted in absentia the following year for helping to lead the Raboteau massacre.

Chamblain, who denies involvement in Raboteau, returned to Haiti this past February to help lead a rebel uprising that ousted and exiled the leftist Aristide yet again. Under U.S. pressure, Chamblain, 49, has now given himself up — but only because Haitian law promises retrials for those convicted in absentia. Many in Haiti fear that there won't be a proper hearing. The house of the prosecutor in Chamblain's original trial was recently burned down, and the judge in the case was severely beaten. "He won't have much resistance in the courtroom," says Brian Concannon, a U.S. lawyer who aided the 1995 prosecution of Chamblain.

Can Haiti resist a return to the kind of right-wing regime that encouraged atrocities like Raboteau in the first place? Two months after the arrival of some 3,500 international peacekeeping troops — who are scheduled to be replaced next month by a larger United Nations force — the nation is still in squalid, violent chaos and especially vulnerable to authoritarian solutions. Aristide himself was hardly a model of democracy and rule of law, and the Bush Administration made no secret of wanting him out. But the U.S., which has some 2,000 Marines patrolling Haiti, seems to have figured out that it can't afford to let post-Aristide Haiti backslide to the pre-Aristide days of military- and oligarchy-backed governments. Last week, U.S. ambassador to Haiti James Foley pointedly warned a gathering of Haitian business leaders that the hemisphere's poorest nation has no choice but to modernize: "Everything must change," he said, "mentalities must evolve profoundly."

So far that looks unlikely. Haiti is awash in guns and factional violence; the police are virtually nonexistent and rebels and gangs still control many towns and cities; the economy is in ashes; the judicial system is a joke and a special presidential election has to be organized by the end of 2005. But Haiti's interim government has dashed hopes of national reconciliation by focusing on retribution against Aristide officials and supporters. That has emboldened street killers: since Aristide's exit, say human-rights reports, dozens of corpses of Aristide backers have turned up in alleys or fields near the airport of the capital, Port-au-Prince, where an international delegation recently observed pigs eating human flesh and bones.

While interim Justice Minister Bernard Gousse has launched an investigation into Aristide's alleged ties to drug trafficking, which Aristide denies, he has turned a blind eye to U.S. and Haitian reports that Guy Philippe, the rebel-army chief, also had drug ties when he was a police chief in the 1990s. Philippe denies the charge. Gousse insists the cases of Chamblain and other Raboteau convicts — like Jean Tatoune, a rebel-army leader whose conviction appeal is still pending — will be treated impartially. But Gousse has already hinted he'll pardon Tatoune, and before Chamblain ceremoniously walked into a jail cell last month he was hailed by Latortue as a "freedom fighter" and served briefly as a judge in the port city of Gonaives, where Raboteau is located. According to Pierre Esperance, director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in Port-au-Prince, it's imperative that retrials like Chamblain's don't become "a comedy of justice to whitewash crimes."

Most Haitians who wanted Aristide gone now hope to reinstate the army in Haiti — an idea U.S. officials condemn. But it's just one more example of a retro-inertia that seems to have gripped Haiti's new ruling establishment. As he was being fingerprinted last month, Chamblain declared that he turned himself in because "I have decided to give Haiti a chance." After 200 years of utter failure, Haiti needs a chance to free itself of medieval governance. But can it get one if men like Chamblain don't face real justice?