The Miami Herald
October 1, 2001

Get-tough policy blamed for vigilante killings in Haiti

 Associated Press Writer

 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- (AP) -- When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide encouraged Haiti's police to get tough on crime this summer, he said criminals caught
 red-handed needn't go to court to be judged.

 ``If a hoodlum stops a vehicle in the street and takes the keys ... he is guilty,'' Aristide told officers. ``It's not necessary to bring him to court to have him judged. Zero tolerance for criminals. Period.''

 Since then street crime has dropped 60 percent, police say.

 Human rights activists say Aristide's words also have led to more than two dozen killings by vigilante mobs.

 It's not the first time Aristide's speeches have left generous room for interpretation. The former slum priest delivers his messages through veiled references and parables, a coded language used to establish a rapport with a largely illiterate and imaginative population.

 But recent attacks on police and fears that former soldiers are fomenting another coup have made rights advocates question whether Aristide's ``zero tolerance'' speech in June was meant to encourage mob justice and give free reign to a police force already accused of killing more than 150 people without cause.

 ``Aristide's language is often ambiguous. The trick is to communicate an unavowable idea without being held responsible for its content,'' said Jean-Claude Bajeux, a
 human rights advocate and former culture minister during Aristide's first term as president.

 Aristide's speech wasn't an outright endorsement for summary executions, but many Haitians jumped to their own conclusions.

 In a poll published in August in the newspaper Le Nouvelliste, 44 percent of 400 respondents said they thought Aristide's ``zero tolerance'' policy meant ``to kill thieves.'' Thirty percent interpreted it as "putting an end to judicial impunity,'' 9 percent thought it meant ``eradicating insecurity,'' 7 percent said they thought he meant "re-establishing the authority of the state'' and 10 percent gave no opinion. There was a margin of error to five to seven percentage points.

 Gesner Jean-Philippe, program director of the Ecumenical Center for Human Rights, said that since Aristide's speech, mobs have killed at least 27 suspected thieves. One man was reportedly beaten, stoned and then shot to death Sept. 15 within sight of the National Palace.

 Numerous cases of innocent people narrowly escaping death at the hands of mobs also have been reported, Jean-Philippe said. ``With his slogan 'zero tolerance,' Aristide wrote a blank check for summary execution.''

 Justice Minister Gary Lissade said Aristide wasn't encouraging violence.

 ``He wanted to shake people up, to show them he was serious about bringing peace of mind to Haiti,'' Lissade said. ``But his words were misinterpreted, and some people even twisted 'zero tolerance' to justify the unjustifiable.''

 Lissade also disputed a warning from Amnesty International on Thursday that respect for human rights in Haiti is deteriorating. ``In a country as poor as Haiti, the struggle for human rights is a daily battle,'' he said.

 Aristide, whose oratory helped inspire an insurrection that ousted the 29-year family dictatorship of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, was elected president in 1990 and stayed in power only eight months before the army ousted him in a coup that began Sept. 30, 1991.

 U.S. troops intervened in 1994 and restored Aristide to power. He stepped down in 1996 as required by the constitution, and he was elected last year to another five-year term.

 Although Aristide has repeatedly condemned violence, he is accused of condoning it through speeches that critics say allow attacks on political opponents and deflect attention from his government's lackluster performance.

 Despite some declines in support, he remains the most popular politician among Haiti's 8 million people and his campaign against crime is welcomed by many.

 ``To have thieves killed, that's the best thing Aristide has done since he took office,'' said Joseph Pierre, a taxi driver who said he is not an Aristide partisan.

 Pierre said many Haitians who live abroad wouldn't have returned to their homeland for summer vacation this year if the ``zero tolerance'' policy hadn't made them feel secure.

 ``Now, when I'm driving through the dark streets at night, I've nothing to be afraid of, unless it be falling into a pothole,'' he said.

                                   © 2001