Jailed priest awaits charges, medical care

Haiti's treament of Father Gerard Jean-Juste is the latest embarrassment for the country's interim government.

Published January 16, 2006

MIAMI - An icon to some and a sinister trouble-maker to others, a priest with strong Miami ties currently sits languishing in a Haitian jail with suspected leukemia.

Love him or hate him, the case of Father Gerard Jean-Juste is the latest embarrassment for Haiti's interim government which took office almost two years ago - with U.S. backing - as part of a supposed democratic transition.

The government is already facing mounting criticism over its failure to hold new elections, due last November. The vote has been postponed four times, and is now scheduled for Feb. 7.

Jean-Juste, 59, was arrested in July in connection with the kidnapping and murder of Haitian journalist and poet Jacques Roche. Almost six months later he has yet to be formally charged in the case, prompting accusations of political persecution by the government against one of its most outspoken critics.

A radical, left-wing Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Juste was famous for mixing politics with his social work. A fierce critic of U.S. policy in Haiti, he blamed Washington for the February 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Born and raised in Haiti, "Father Gerry," as he is known to his friends, was a leading refugee advocate in Miami in the 1980s, championing the rights of Haitian boat people fleeing political violence and poverty. He is still fondly remembered in Miami where several large protests have been held calling for his release.

"He means an enormous amount to people here," said Steven Forester, a Miami immigration attorney who worked closely with Jean-Juste.

In 1990 he returned to Haiti and set up a parish in one of the capital's slums where he ran a feeding program for the poor. He soon became a close ally of Aristide, himself a former priest who was expelled by the Salesian order for allegedly advocating violence.

Prior to his arrest, Jean-Juste was one of the most prominent voices in Haiti calling for Aristide's return from exile in South Africa. It was also rumored that Jean-Juste was considering running for president on a platform to put Aristide back in power.

"He's a charismatic guy and people were trying to draft him," said Forester. "It's clear to us that he was arrested to keep him out of the way."

The campaign for his release has broad backing.

"Father Jean-Juste's situation transcends politics. He was a pioneer in our community," said Herntz Phanord, 52, a radio talk show host at WJCC (AM-1700), Miami's largest Haitian-owned radio station. "Whether you like him or not, we owe it to him."

The independent human rights group Amnesty International has designated him a prisoner of conscience. The campaign also enjoys the support of members of Congress. On Jan. 3, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., requested Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervene with Haitian authorities to arrange medical treatment for Jean-Juste.

Nelson's letter was prompted, in part, by reports that Jean-Juste is suffering from a form of leukemia. This was confirmed over the holidays by former Brooksville resident Dr. Paul Farmer, a renowned Harvard Medical School professor who runs a clinic in central Haiti.

Jean-Juste is in urgent need of proper medical care, according to Farmer.

"As we know from long experience in central Haiti, it's hard enough to deliver chemotherapy anywhere in the country," he wrote in an opinion piece published by the Miami Herald. "It's simply not possible to do so in a Haitian prison."

Farmer, who has long voiced criticism of U.S. policy in Haiti, also urged the Bush administration to come to Jean-Juste's rescue.

A State Department official said Jean-Juste's circumstances are being closely monitored by the U.S. Embassy in Haiti. The official added that U.S. officials have raised Jean-Juste's case at senior levels of the Haitian government, urging that he receive proper medical attention.

Late last week, the government permitted Jean-Juste to be examined by a local doctor who confirmed Farmer's diagnosis. He was returned to prison after the exam.

This is not the first time that Jean-Juste has fallen foul of Haiti's justice system. He was arrested in October 2004 at his church, St. Claire's, on charges of "plotting against the internal security of the state." He was released after six weeks in jail when a judge dismissed the charges.

He was arrested again last July in bizarre circumstances after trying to attend the funeral of Roche, the murdered journalist. (Roche also worked for the St. Petersburg Times as a freelance driver and translator in Haiti.)

Jean-Juste was taken into custody by police for his own safety after a crowd of mourners assaulted him outside the church, accusing him of being behind the kidnapping.

He was taken to a nearby police station. But instead of being released he was put in jail. No arrest warrant was ever served on him, according to his lawyer. Nor have any formal charges been filed.

One fact stands out in the case: Jean-Juste was in Miami during the entire time of Roche's kidnapping and murder.

"How could he have carried it out if he wasn't even in the country?" asked his lawyer, Mario Joseph.

Friends and colleagues of Roche who handled the kidnappers' ransom demands say they have no direct knowledge of who was behind it. But they believe Jean-Juste may have known the gang members involved.

Jean-Juste was widely suspected of ties to Haiti's slum gangs during Aristide's government. The ties between the gangs and Aristide and his security staff have been well documented. Aristide's use of the gangs to intimidate his opponents was a major factor in his downfall, analysts say.

While Jean-Juste enjoyed official presidential palace protection, his gang ties are less clear. While his sermons and radio broadcasts defending Aristide often made him sound like an apologist for the gang violence, there is no direct evidence linking him to their activities. Furthermore, anyone conducting social work in the slums inevitably comes into regular contact with the gang leaders, analysts add.

Under Haitian law a judge has three months to decide if a case has merit, though an extension may be sought. But Jean-Juste's lawyer accuses the government of pressuring the judge to delay resolution of the case.

"The government in Haiti is a dictatorship," said Joseph. "They play with the laws however they like."

The office of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue denied any political interference. "The executive office of the prime minister is not directly involved in justice decisions," said spokesman Jean Junior Joseph."Just like any other country we have separation of powers."

But few people in Haiti take statements like that seriously these days.

They point to the government's firing last month of five of the country's 12 Supreme Court judges. Courts are currently closed after the judges went on strike.

"The system is completely broken," said attorney Mario Joseph.

-- David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com