Aristide: Incident at National Palace was coup attempt
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti dismissed
allegations Monday that an attack on the National Palace last month was
government-orchestrated charade, while acknowledging that he could provide no answers for why a Miami businessman has been detained in connection with the reported coup.
``I respect the right of every single citizen to say it was or
wasn't a coup, but I confess it was that,'' Aristide said at his first
gathering with the foreign press since the
Dec. 17 attack set off a spasm of violence in which at least 10 people died.
``Around 2 in the morning a group of men with heavy machinery came to the palace,'' Aristide said inside the palace, steps away from a wall full of bullet holes. ``They were in the position to get in because of the weapons. The police, within the framework of the law, did exactly what they had to do.''
At least six people have been detained as part of the investigation, including a sergeant in Haiti's former army and Antoine Saati, a U.S. citizen who with his sister runs a multimillion-dollar import-export business based in Miami.
Saati, who has not been charged, was to have appeared before an
investigating judge last week for questioning but that did not happen.
Another court appearance is
scheduled for today.
Saati, who has denied involvement in the attack, blames his Dec.
20 arrest on a legal dispute with a former employee who he says has powerful
ties to the Aristide
government. Though Saati says he is not political, his brother Georges is a vocal critic of Aristide.
The detention has prompted inquiries from U.S. officials.
Aristide said that he knows ``there are complaints about [Saati's] detention,'' but expressed confidence in investigators and said he would not interfere.
``I know that authorities are doing their best to determine whether to release or keep him in custody,'' Aristide said. ``Hopefully, they will be telling us where they are with this situation soon. Mr. Saati has rights and they will be respected.''
Meanwhile, a former Haitian police chief remains in custody in
the Dominican Republic. Guy Philippe was apprehended after entering the
country from a flight from
Ecuador, where he appeared a day after the coup. Dominican authorities have not said if they intend to return Philippe to Haiti.
Aristide, who is to meet with President Hipólito Mejía later this month, said he would like Philippe to be placed ``under control'' either in Haiti or someplace other than the Dominican Republic, but he stopped short of demanding an extradition.
The nations, which share the island of Hispaniola, do not have an extradition treaty and have a history of strained relations. Suspects in political crimes in Haiti have been given asylum by the Dominican government in the past.
Aristide also used the gathering at the palace Monday to open a dialogue with about 100 Haitian journalists and owners and directors of media outlets. As many as 40 journalists are hiding and a dozen have fled the country in what is becoming more frequent attacks against journalists. At least two have been killed in recent months.
Aristide offered assurances that free speech would be respected and called for tolerance among the population. He also urged those who are victimized to report their grievances to authorities.
``I will do everything in my power so that journalists can do their jobs without interference and I will make sure all the laws are respected,'' Aristide said. ``Sometimes in this country there is confusion about opposing views. . . . I think it is important that we respect each other's views even if they are different.''
Aristide also said that the government had an obligation to ensure that political parties can evolve free of persecution, and he offered an olive branch to the opposition to return to the negotiation table. Aristide and his Lavalas Family party have been locked in a yearlong dispute with a 15-party alliance known as the Democratic Convergence over alleged irregularities in last year's legislative election. The conflict has caused foreign donors to refuse to release hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.