Associated Press
Tue, Aug. 17, 2004

Haiti Jury Acquits Ex-Paramilitary Leader

Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - A jury on Tuesday acquitted a leader of a paramilitary group blamed for killing some 3,000 people, after a 14-hour murder trial that angered human rights groups and provoked criticism of the new U.S.-backed government.

Louis-Jodel Chamblain was acquitted of the murder of Antoine Izmery, an importer who bankrolled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's presidential bid in 1990, the year before he was ousted in a coup. During the regime that followed, Chamblain led the paramilitary Front for the Advancement and Progress of the Haitian People, a group blamed for killing some 3,000 regime opponents from 1991 to 1994.

"For the defense, this has been a great success," said Stanley Gaston, an attorney for Chamblain, who returned from exile in the Dominican Republic to lead a band of rebels whose three-week revolt ended with Aristide's ouster on Feb. 29.

Eight witnesses were called by the prosecution, but only one showed, and that witness said he knew nothing about the case, according to Viles Alizar of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. Two defense witnesses showed up but offered few details, he said.

"It is shameful, though not surprising, that this acquittal came without any apparent regard to fair trial standards," said Wende Gozan, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in New York.

Chamblain, in several interviews with The Associated Press from February to April, said he has never killed anyone.

Jury selection began late Monday morning and journalists were told the day would likely be devoted to selecting a jury. But the trial began at 4 p.m. and stretched into the evening. A verdict was announced at 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Chamblain's co-defendant - Jackson Joanis, a former Port-au-Prince police chief - was also acquitted. Joanis remains jailed on murder charges for a 1994 killing.

Chamblain remains jailed on charges he ordered the killings of several people in an Aristide stronghold in 1994.

It could be another month before the pair's next trial, Gaston said.

In the late 1980s, during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Chamblain left the Haitian army and allegedly ran death squads aimed at terrorizing supporters of Aristide's Lavalas Family party.

Chamblain believes Aristide ordered his henchmen to kill his pregnant wife in 1991, the same year Aristide was first overthrown.

When U.S. troops came to the country in 1994 to restore Aristide, Chamblain fled to the Dominican Republic. In 1995, he was convicted in absentia and given two life sentences for Izmery's 1993 killing and for the 1994 slaughter of Aristide supporters in the northern town of Gonaives, the city where February's rebellion began.

Haitian law allows people judged in their absence to another trial if they return.

Chamblain, in the February-to-April interviews with the AP, denied involvement in the Izmery killing or the 1994 slayings of Aristide supporters.

After Chamblain's April surrender, Bernard Gousse - the interim Justice Minister under the interim U.S.-backed government - said it was possible Chamblain could be pardoned "for his great services to the nation," noting what he had done to oust Aristide in February.

Human rights groups have criticized Haiti's U.S.-backed interim government for forming alliances with people like Chamblain while it arrests Aristide officials and supporters.

Elifaite Saint-Pierre, spokesman for the Platform of Human Rights Organizations, a coalition of nine Haitian groups, said the outcome of the trial was foreseeable.

"This is what we predicted," he said. "Now it is the ex-military who make the law."