Ex-general once ruled Haiti, now is held in jail there
Opposition demanding his release
Prosper Avril attributes a recent wave of violent crime to police inefficiency under President Aristide.
BY YVES COLON
As a former president and army general, Prosper Avril once cut a powerful figure in Haiti.
Now, the 64-year-old grandfather sits in an overcrowded cell at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince following an arrest that has generated irate criticism from his family and praise from some human rights activists.
Avril is ``surrounded by dozens of common crime perpetrators'' in jail, according to his son, Gregor.
``If you want to talk about dictatorship and human rights abuse in Haiti, it's happening right now in Haiti, under the rule of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Fanmi Lavalas Party,'' Gregor Avril said. ``Prosper Avril's arrest was illegal and arbitrary.''
Avril's arrest comes at a critical time for Haiti.
A delegation from the Organization of American States and CARICOM, a regional political and economic alliance in the Caribbean, is trying to negotiate a settlement between Aristide, his Family Lavalas political party and the Convergence Democratique, a coalition of minor parties that opposes Aristide.
Negotiations have stalled for nearly a year, and analysts see this latest effort by the international community as a last-ditch effort to resolve this crisis and unlock millions of dollars in aid and loans Aristide desperately needs to make good on campaign promises.
Any agreement appears unlikely, however, because the coalition, which has consistently turned down offers of negotiation, is now demanding Avril's release as a condition to participate in future talks.
The coalition, alleging electoral fraud, refuses to recognize
Aristide's presidency and continues to call for Aristide to step down.
Its ``provisional president,'' Gerard
Gourgue, has called for the return of the Haitian army, which Aristide abolished.
Avril, who graduated as valedictorian from Haiti's military academy
in the last class before Francois Duvalier closed the school in the early
1960s, would have been
expected to play a key role in the army Gourgue wants restored.
Although rumored to have returned from exile some time ago, Avril
had not been seen in public until early May, when he attended an event
as head of the CREDDO
political party to give support to the Convergence Democratique. Last week was the second time; he went to an upscale restaurant in a suburb of the capital to sign
copies of his book, Haiti: 1995-2001 The Black Book on Insecurity.
The book attributes a recent wave of kidnappings, holdups, robberies and killings to the inefficiency of the Aristide police force.
As he signed books, heavily armed soldiers wearing black ski masks entered the restaurant and snatched Avril. Gregor Avril said Aristide's government is trying to silence his father.
The state, however, says Avril is a dangerous man.
``This is a person who should have been arrested a long time ago, and simply escaped,'' said Ira Kurzban, the Haitian government's attorney in Miami.
ACCUSED OF PLOT
Haitian officials accuse Avril of plotting to overthrow Aristide. They also want him brought to trial for human rights abuses committed in 1989, after Avril became de facto president. He led Haiti from September 1988 to March 1990, when violent demonstrations and international pressure forced him to go into exile.
During his brief presidency, Haitian officials say, Avril ordered
the arrest, illegal detention and torture of various political activists,
including Evans Paul, Serge Gilles,
Marino Etienne, Gerard Laforest, Gerald Brun and Jean Auguste Mesyeux. They say Avril proudly displayed the bloodied victims on national television.
Ironically, both Paul and Gilles are now members of the Convergence, and they have condemned Avril's arrest.
In 1991, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a complaint against Avril in Miami Federal Court on behalf of Paul, Gilles and the others. The court found that Avril had "personal responsibility for a systematic pattern of egregious human rights abuses'' during his tenure as dictator, as well as for the ``interrogation and torture of each of the plaintiffs in [the] case.'' A judgment of $41 million was issued in 1994, but Avril had fled the country.
Brian Concannon, a U.S. lawyer in Haiti who has helped to prosecute former military officers for human rights abuses, said he intends to bring charges against Avril in the hope of recovering funds that the long-ruling Duvalier dictatorship allegedly entrusted to him.
Concannon said he was surprised by Avril's arrest.
``But it was a nice surprise,'' he added. ``There is not a bad time to arrest Prosper Avril.''
Gregor Avril said the charges against his father are bogus and that he should not be blamed for the mistakes committed under his watch.
``These acts were committed by members of the police force,'' he said, ``so they're the ones who should have been tried."