The Miami Herald
Mon, Feb. 21, 2005

Nearly 500 inmates free after Haiti raid

It is not known who organized a prison raid in Haiti's capital that allowed nearly 500 inmates, including two ex-officials, to go free.

Special to The Herald

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Nervous prison guards and armed U.N. peacekeepers took up positions around Haiti's National Penitentiary on Sunday, one day after a dazzling daytime jailbreak in which gunmen helped in the escape of almost 500 prisoners, including two former government officials.

Although mystery still surrounded the details of the break, credible witnesses whose stories corroborate each other said some six armed men burst into the dilapidated and overcrowded prison around 3 p.m. on Saturday. Among those witnesses was a prisoner who spoke to a family member afterward.


''He thought it was gang-related or drug-related,'' the family member said of the prisoner, speaking to The Herald on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. ``They seemed to be in there for two or three people only, but everyone else rushed out in the panic.''

Haitian authorities said a total of 481 of about 1,250 prisoners escaped but refused to give any other details. The official Haitian police spokeswoman left the country this morning, and no other police officer would comment on the breakout.

Four prisoners have turned themselves in so far, according to the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, a rights group that monitors the prisons. Police claim they are searching for the other escapees, but Sunday traffic around the capital was normal, with very few police cars or UN vehicles on the quiet streets.


Among those who left the prison Saturday were former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and former Minister of the Interior Jocelerme Privert. Both served under ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted on Feb. 29, 2004. The men are expected to be tried in connection with repression and corruption.

The ex-ministers and a third high-profile prisoner, businessman Alan Theophile, left the prison together. They said they would be safer if they rushed out with the mass of panicked men.

Neptune claimed he was forced to leave, according to a friend who spoke to him and would talk to The Herald only if her identity were not disclosed.

''He called me to say he was forced out, but that he was safe,'' she said. ''He did not know the men who did the break. He told me he would be sleeping in the same place he has been for the past eight months,'' meaning his cell.

The three men ended up at Theophile's home Saturday evening.


Witnesses said the men sat by the swimming pool, drinking wine and eating cheese as they waited for U.N. peacekeepers to take them into custody. A convoy of armored vehicles and jeeps full of Brazilian peacekeepers soon arrived and they were in their cells shortly afterward.

Witnesses said the attackers, who shot and killed an off-duty guard in the street near the prison, fired their weapons in the air but said they did not use any force to enter.

About six men went in while others remained outside, according to NCHR's Marie Yolne Gilles. She spent Sunday at the prison investigating the attack.

''According to the information we have, the people who did this are the same ones notorious for acts of violence in the capital recently,'' Gilles told The Herald, meaning the armed chimres or thugs who claim allegiance to former President Aristide and who say they seek his return.

Others say the attack was carried out by gangsters hired by drug dealers.


Among those who escaped were suspected high-level chimres from the capital, like musician Yvon ''Zap Zap'' Antoine, and others being held in connection with violent attacks on Aristide opponents during the president's final weeks in power.

''Thugs, gang leaders, murders, kidnappers and drug dealers are among those who got out,'' Gilles said. ''There was clearly complicity from the guards,'' she continued. ``Not one guard fired at the thugs. All the guards hid.''

As Pakistani, Jordanian and Brazilian peacekeepers eyed crowds of prisoners' relatives from behind their machine guns or patrolled on foot on Sunday, Haitian guards outside the prison were suspicious and hostile, chasing away journalists and family members who came to find out if there loved ones were still inside.