On May 16, a group of massacre survivors from one of Haiti’s poorest neighborhoods gave the world a lesson in persistence. After a 14-year fight for justice in Haitian and United States courts, they collected $400,000 in court-awarded compensation for the damages they suffered in the April 22, 1994 Raboteau Massacre. The victims’ courage and insistence on formal justice should also be a lesson to their own government, as Haiti continues to struggle with yet another democratic transition.

The Raboteau victims’ money came from the Florida lottery winnings of Colonel Carl Dorélien, a member of the military high command during Haiti’s 1991-1994 de facto dictatorship. Dorélien fled the restoration of Haiti’s democracy in 1994, and then won over $3 million with a lucky ticket in 1997. The money will not make the victims rich. It was split among 97 of them, and will undoubtedly be divided hundreds of times more among needy family members, neighbors, and friends. Most of the victims will continue to wake up each morning in small, crowded houses with no running water. They will go out to the Raboteau streets that are inundated with sewer water during the rainy season, and have no trees to block the hot sun. But the money will help, especially now as Raboteau and the rest of Haiti suffer from the global food crisis. More important, for the rest of their lives, the victims will be able to say they gave their country and the world a lesson in fighting for justice, winning three landmark lawsuits in two countries.

Over the last 14 years, the Raboteau victims’ progress in their fight for justice has been a good indicator of Haiti’s progress in establishing democracy. As Haiti’s democratic governments (1994-2004) established the rule of law and reformed the country’s corrupt justice system, the Raboteau case progressed. Under the de facto dictatorship and the unconstitutional U.S.-supported Interim Government of Haiti (IGH, 2004-2006), the case stagnated or regressed.

The Massacre

On April 22, 1994, the Haitian army and its thug allies descended on Raboteau before dawn. The neighborhood was the only community that continued to openly protest the overthrow of Haiti’s democratic government in 1991. The attackers were determined to shut the neighborhood up, so they surrounded Raboteau by land and by sea. They ransacked houses, beat men, women, and children, and shot at those who tried to flee. No one knows how many people were killed—relatives were prevented from recovering the bodies, so many washed out to sea, or were buried in shallow graves on the beach. But the survivors were terrified enough that the whole neighborhood, perhaps 4,000 people or more, fled.

Fighting for Justice in Haiti

The victims did not shut up. Instead they responded to the regime’s outlaw brutality by filing complaints with the local justice of the peace, naming the names of the perpetrators. This act was courageous, almost foolhardy: the military could have confiscated the complaints and hunted down their authors.

Demonstration at Ministry of Justice for freedom for political prisoners. Photo: Wadner Pierre, 2006.

There was also zero chance of the Haitian justice system actually taking up the complaints as long as the de facto regime remained in power. Six years later, Roland Paphius, the government prosecutor at the time of the massacre, was asked why he did not pursue the case in April 1994. He cited the proverb: konstitisyon se papye, bayonet se fe (the constitution is paper, a bayonet is steel). The victims had a constitutional right to pursue their case; Paphius had a legal obligation to help them. But anyone taking soldiers to court under that dictatorship risked imprisonment or death.

The de facto regime was chased out by a multinational force in September 1994, and the constitutional government, led by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was restored. The government made justice for victims of political violence a priority: a Truth and Justice Commission was established, along with special police teams that investigated politically-motivated crimes. The government also supported the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a public interest law office staffed by Haitian and international lawyers, that represented the Raboteau victims.

The restored government and its successor, led by President René Préval (1996-2001), also made deep, system-wide improvements to the justice system. Prosecutors and judges who had collaborated with the de facto regime’s repression were replaced with new officials, many of them trained overseas or in Haiti’s new Judicial Academy.

The Raboteau victims continued to push their case by every means available. They filed more complaints, and testified at pre-trial hearings. They pressured justice officials and kept their struggle in the public eye through demonstrations, press conferences, letter-writing campaigns, even songs.

Initially, Haiti’s justice system, after so many years of dictatorship, was just not up to the Raboteau victims’ challenge. Judges and prosecutors were not used to providing justice to poor people: they even insisted on speaking French in court, which only Haiti’s elite speaks, rather than Haitian Creole, which is spoken by everyone. Courtroom facilities and basic materials were inadequate—many courts lacked basic legal texts, even paper. So the case proceeded very slowly.

The victims kept fighting, and the longer democracy remained in Haiti, the more the justice system improved. The new, better-trained judges and prosecutors honed their skills on the job, working in a democratic justice system for the first time. New courtrooms were built. President Préval created a special office to help the Raboteau victims and organize trial logistics.

A "Huge Step Forward"

By the time the Raboteau massacre case reached trial in September 2000, Haiti had enjoyed six years of continuous democracy. The justice system was able to produce a trial that was superior to anything anyone had believed possible when the complaints were filed. After six weeks of trial, the court convicted 53 people, including the dictatorship’s top leaders, for murder and other crimes. The court also delivered a civil judgment for a billion Haitian Gourdes in compensation (about US$28 million today).

Marjorie Cohn, an international law professor and president of the National Lawyers Guild, called the Raboteau trial in Haiti "one of the most important human rights cases anywhere in the Americas." Adama Dieng, the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s independent expert on Haiti, called it "a huge step forward" for Haiti. National and international human rights groups found the trial fair to defendants and victims alike. The trial was broadcast on national television and radio, and people throughout Haiti saw how the justice system could be used by the poor to defend their constitutional rights against the rich and powerful.

But the justice system was unable to get its hands on the dictatorship’s top leaders (or their money) in Haiti. The top three members of the ruling junta had fled to Panama and Honduras ahead of the restoration of democracy in 1994. Others fled to the United States, including most of the military High Command, and Emmanuel Constant, the leader of the notorious FRAPH death squad. All these leaders had been convicted in absentia in the Haitian trial. Although they had the right to a new trial upon their return to Haiti, in absentia convicts were subject to immediate arrest, and to enforcement of the civil judgment.

Fighting for Justice in the United States

The Raboteau victims’ fight followed the top leaders to the United States. Bureau des Avocats Internationaux lawyers worked with U.S.-based human rights groups and immigration officials to locate and deport the fugitives from justice. Three members of the High Command, including Col. Dorélien, were deported over the next three years to face charges. One of them, a Major-General, is the highest ranked military officer ever deported from the United States to face human rights charges.

The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed two lawsuits on behalf of the victims to recover Dorélien’s lottery proceeds. The first, in Federal Court in Miami, was filed under the Alien Tort Statute, a law that has been used against human rights violators from El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, and other countries. The second case was filed in Florida State Court, to enforce the Haitian civil judgment.

A "Huge Step Backward" in Haiti, a Step Forward in the United States

Meanwhile, Haiti suffered another coup d’état in February 2004, this time with the active participation of the United States, Canada, and France. Thousands died in political violence over the next two years, and hundreds of democracy supporters were imprisoned illegally. The new dictatorship, known as the Interim Government of Haiti (IGH), eager to erase the precedent that dictators could be held accountable for their crimes, systematically dismantled the Raboteau decision. Everyone in prison in the case was released. The trial judge was beaten up. One of the victims who had testified at trial was shot shortly after the coup. Two others had their houses burned down, losing the few possessions that they owned.

The IGH also made broader attacks on the democratic governments’ justice reforms. Several of the newly trained judges and prosecutors were forced out and replaced with the regime’s friends. Courts in Haiti once again became an instrument of repression, as the jails filled with the IGH’s political opponents. When the regime did not like a ruling of the Supreme Court, it illegally fired half the judges and replaced them with handpicked supporters.

In what Amnesty International called "a huge step backward," in May 2005 the regime’s Supreme Court overturned some of the Raboteau convictions, on the same legal grounds that the Supreme Court, the Appeals Court, and international legal experts had unanimously rejected in 1999, under the democratic governments.

The victims had more success in their U.S. battles. In 2006, a Florida State Court found that the Haitian civil judgment was legal and enforceable in the United States, one of the first times that a U.S. court has enforced a foreign human rights judgment. The Florida case is especially historic because it showed that Haiti’s much-criticized justice system could rise to the occasion and conduct a complicated case that satisfied U.S. standards.

A year later, the Federal Court case went to trial in Miami, on behalf of the Raboteau victims and Lexiuste Cajuste, a labor leader who had been brutally tortured in 1993. After hearing the testimony and Col. Dorélien’s defense, the jury ordered Dorélien to pay the plaintiffs $4.3 million.

Justice in Haiti?

The IGH was replaced two years ago, in May 2006, by an elected administration, once again headed by President Préval. The new government is not arresting political opponents or illegally removing judges. It has created enough security that the victims were able to distribute their compensation—a large amount of money in a starving country—amongst themselves without anyone getting killed.

But the Préval administration is also not doing anything to prosecute human rights violations by the IGH or other dictatorships. There are no special prosecutors or police, and government officials do not even speak publicly about justice for the IGH’s victims. Many of the prosecutors and judges who participated in the IGH’s persecution are still in their positions, and they are still persecuting. Some political prisoners remain in jail, others have been let out, but their cases continue. The Supreme Court is still dominated by the illegitimate judges that the IGH placed there.

President Préval’s government is also not doing anything to resurrect the Raboteau case. It has not moved to arrest any of those who escaped prison in 2004, or to appeal the Supreme Court’s huge step backward in 2005.

President Préval is not yet halfway through his five-year term, so there is still time for his government to act. In his first administration, most of President Préval’s successes, including the Raboteau trial, came at the end of his term. But the seeds for those successes were planted earlier, and it does not appear that any seeds have yet been planted for the victims of human rights violations.

Haiti is also struggling with its democratic transition in the legislative and executive branches, as well as the judicial branch. Elections for one-third of the Senate that the constitution mandated for last December have not even been scheduled. Parliament, which had been largely ineffective for two years, is now virtually paralyzed. After food riots in April, Parliament forced the resignation of the prime minister, and has since rejected two proposed replacements, leaving a leadership void in the executive branch.

The Raboteau victims’ example is now more than ever relevant to Haiti. The victims passed up opportunities for violent revenge against their oppressors, and insisted on making the formal justice system work and adhering to the constitution. They understood that long-term stability will never come to Haiti until sustainable, democratic institutions are established and supported by officials, citizens, and the international community. They also understood that establishing these institutions requires hard work, persistence, and the sacrificing of short-term personal interests.

The Raboteau victims’ example is particularly relevant to Haiti’s current leadership, and to the members of the international community that exercise significant influence in Haiti, especially the United States, France, and Canada. It should inspire Haitian leaders to put aside their short-term political interests and focus on the long-term development of political institutions. It should inspire the powerful members of the international community to forgo unconstitutional regime change when they disapprove of the leaders that Haitians elect.