By Sam Bojarski
In April 1994, armed members of the paramilitary group Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) attacked and killed residents of Raboteau, who had been demonstrating in favor of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Among the perpetrators was FRAPH leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, who would soon flee to the U.S., where he remained for 25 years, despite being convicted in absentia in 2000 for the role he played in the massacre. On June 23, Constant was deported to Haiti and immediately arrested by authorities upon his arrival.
Despite his connections to Haiti’s current ruling party, Constant is, in some respects, part of Haiti’s past, according to media blogger Jean Junior Joseph.
“Many youngsters don’t know Constant. Many don’t care about him coming to Haiti or not,” Joseph told the Haitian Times in a message. But he added that the former death squad leader has allies in the current government.
“Most of (the) people in PHTK are Constant’s ally. On the other hand, Aristide’s fanatics don’t forget him. They know he is around,” he said.
Although decades have passed since the deadly Raboteau massacre, lawyers and human rights groups have voiced concerns regarding the climate of impunity for human rights abuses that has characterized the current Haitian government. While Constant will likely receive a new trial in Haiti, COVID-19 and an underfunded judiciary may delay his case. His deportation to Haiti could add to the growing instability of the country.
In 2000, Constant and 36 other defendants were convicted in absentia and sentenced for the Raboteau massacre, although Haitian law gave these defendants the right to a new trial.
“He can ask for a brand-new proceeding pursuant to the existing ordonnance,” said Alexandra Filippova, senior staff attorney for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). The sister organization of IJDH, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), helped prosecute the Raboteau case on behalf of victims in the incident.
“It’s not an appeal of the judgement, because basically there are no presumptions of any guilt that would apply. For example, all of the elements of his crimes would have to be proven anew, although the same evidence can be used,” Filippova added.
Constant was one of 27 deportees to arrive in Haiti on June 23, carried on the seventh U.S. deportation flight to arrive in Haiti since the country closed its borders to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Nicole Phillips, legal director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance also told the Haitian Times that Haitian courts are certainly capable of giving Constant a fair hearing, citing the Raboteau trial as a landmark example of judicial accountability. But she questioned whether the Moise administration has the political will to prosecute him.
“What we’re afraid of is that there’s going to be some sort of sham trial, where witnesses won’t be called, where there really won’t be independence of the judiciary,” Phillips said.
“The U.S. embassy has a special role in Haiti of ensuring judicial accountability. We’re hoping that Ambassador Michele Sison exercises that role considering all the investment the U.S. government has made in ensuring an independent and functioning judicial system,” she added.
While Constant is currently being held in jail, the climate in Haiti means his future is uncertain, according to Pierre Esperance, executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network. Constant can easily pose a security threat in the near future, said Esperance, who is based in Port-au-Prince.
“Anything can happen in Haiti because of the impunity and corruption. Anything can happen with him,” Esperance said in regard to Constant.
Esperance also noted that the PHTK ruling party has close connections with associates and former members of FRAPH, which played a key, extra-governmental role in upholding the coup regime of Raoul Cedras, who wrested power from Aristide in 1991 and ruled the country until late 1994.
Constant led the paramilitary group, which was responsible for thousands of assassinations, rapes and tortures, many directed at supporters of Aristide. For at least part of his time as FRAPH leader, Constant was on the CIA’s payroll.
In 2018, Haitian President Jovenel Moise appointed one individual convicted for playing a role in the Raboteau massacre to the high command of the newly reconstituted Haitian armed forces. Jean-Robert Gabriel, current assistant chief of staff of the Haitian armed forces, was convicted in absentia in 2000 for his role in the massacre. Gabriel had previously served as a public spokesperson for the Gen. Raoul Cedras regime.
Sadrac Saintil, named chief of staff by Moise, was not convicted for the Raboteau massacre, but allegedly played a role in covering it up as a leader of the Cedras regime’s own investigation into the incident, as Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has reported.
“FRAPH was created as a paramilitary group that worked very much alongside the Haitian military but was in some ways used to try to provide deniability for (the Cedras regime),” said Filippova.
She heralded the Raboteau trial that convicted Constant as a landmark event for justice and accountability in Haiti, touting the “incredible grassroots mobilization effort” that enabled the trial to take place. But events since the 2000 trial have demonstrated how regime change can overturn progress in Haiti.
In 2005, a year after Aristide was ousted for the second time by former military and paramilitary members, Haiti’s Cour de Cassation threw out the convictions of the 16 people who were found guilty by jury in the trial, claiming that a 1928 law requires a trial without jury for all cases of multiple but related crimes. This decision did not apply to those convicted in absentia, including Constant. Most of the people convicted by jury in the trial had already escaped custody by 2005.
Future justice uncertain
Having convicted human rights offenders like Gabriel in positions of authority can send the wrong signal to witnesses, if Constant gets another trial.
“I think there’s every reason to be concerned about what that means in terms of this going forward and what that means for how comfortable witnesses are in participating again,” Filippova said.
Delays that could occur due to COVID-19, politicization of the judicial sector and instability, she added, can also play a role.
Esperance noted the current climate of impunity that has allowed gang activity to flourish in recent months. Many of Haiti’s gang members “are very close to the government, and they work for the government. And at the same time the current government does not provide enough equipment for the police,” he said.
The La Saline massacre in November 2018 illustrates how extra-governmental forces can be used to crush dissent. United Nations investigators fingered the Haitian government for playing a role in the incident, when armed gang members dressed as police officers killed dozens of people in a Port-au-Prince slum. The neighborhood was a hotbed for anti-government protest.
In addition to the climate of instability and fear of reprisal, a judicial strike could also impede the justice process. The National Association of Haitian Magistrates announced an indefinite strike in mid-June, to protest the justice system’s budget allocation.
“It’s not just the strike, there are some really serious issues with expiring mandates and failure to fill seats. There are really serious issues with closures due to security concerns that are unaddressed, and there are really serious issues with regard to political manipulation and politicization of the courts. Layer on top of that closures due to COVID … and layer on top of that the regular recess that the courts usually take at the end of the summer,” said Filippova.
She also said the longer Constant is held, the more chance there is of him escaping, like many others convicted in the Raboteau trial.
Given the speed of the Haitian justice system, Esperance said he does not expect a trial for Constant to occur until November, at the very earliest. His confidence in the justice system is low.
In addition to the climate of impunity for criminals, “the key state institutions are very weak, and they don’t care about the victims. And then they don’t do anything to improve the judiciary system,” Esperance said.