May 7, 2002

Lawyers abandon Haitian courts in protest

                 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Court proceedings across Haiti came to a
                 halt Tuesday after lawyers held a one-day strike over what they say is a
                 corrupt and ineffective judicial system.

                 "If you are a lawyer, you are prevented from practicing your profession according
                 to the norms," said lawyer Rigaud Duplan, president of the 500-member
                 Port-au-Prince Bar Association and one of hundreds who left judges and clients in
                 the lurch Tuesday.

                 The protest came after investigating Judge Henri Kesner Noel fled Haiti. He said he
                 feared fo r his life after Haitian authorities pressured him to sign an arrest warrant
                 for former military dictator Prosper Avril, who was arrested minutes after being
                 released from prison on April 15.

                 "After innumerable violations of legal procedure and due process, the Noel affair
                 was the last straw," said lawyer Rene Julien who said most of the courts in major
                 Haitian towns were empty.

                 Lawyers, whose cases were postponed until Wednesday, blame the government for
                 interfering in judicial matters, accuse prosecutors of not executing judges' orders
                 and complain there is no due process.

                 Despite a constitutional requirement that a person hear the charges against him
                 within 48 hours of his detention, people are often detained for months in Haiti
                 without ever being charged.

                 Although the lawyers made no specific demands, they said they would consider
                 another strike if conditions didn't improve.

                 "We recognize the judicial system has many problems, and we're doing what we
                 can to solve them," said Privat Precil, director-general of the justice ministry, in an
                 interview Tuesday.

                 Noel, an investigating judge in the westcoast port of St. Marc, said he had been
                 summoned to the Port-au-Prince office of National Security on April 15 and forced
                 to sign Avril's warrant, which he had not drafted. On April 26, Noel and his family
                 flew to Miami.

                 The government denied putting political pressure on judges.

                 On April 11, the Port-au-Prince Appeals Court ordered Avril's immediate release,
                 saying his arrest last year for plotting to overthrow the government was illegal.

                 Four days later, Avril was in prison again, charged with complicity in the 1990
                 murder of about a dozen peasants killed by soldiers in the westcoast settlement
                 Piate, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of the capital. Piate is located in the
                 St. Marc jurisdiction.

                 Avril seized power in September 1988, but a popular uprising forced him to resign
                 three days before the massacre took place on March 13, 1990.

                 He went into exile in the United States on March 12, 1990.

                 Human rights activists have blamed the former dictator for rights violations during
                 his rule, but also denounced the government for keeping him in prison illegally.

                 In January, investigating Judge Claudy Gassant also fled Haiti, saying he feared for
                 his life. He had been investigating the April 2000 assassination of Haiti's most
                 prominent journalist Jean Dominique.

                 "The constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, it is not
                 independent in practice and is subject to significant influence by the executive and
                 legislative branches," stated this year's U.S. State Department report on human

                 "Years of extensive corruption and governmental neglect have left the judicial
                 system poorly organized and nearly moribund."

                 A 20-member team from the Organization of American States is set to begin a
                 mission to provide Haiti with technical assistance in security, justice, human rights,
                 and governance.

                  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.