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Haiti terror victim recalls hell of Baby Doc's jails

Return of former dictator Duvalier ignites storm in quake-ravaged country that threw him out 25 years ago.

PORT-AU-PRINCE // The death and horrors witnessed by Robert Duval inside the jails of the former teen dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier remain etched in his memory, even though they occurred 35 years ago during one of the darkest chapters of Haiti's history.

Mr Duval, 57, compares the cramped cells to an "extermination camp" and there is no doubt in his mind that Haiti's one-time president, better known as Baby Doc, who returned to the quake-ravaged nation last week, should be brought to justice.

The ousted dictator's surprise arrival comes as Haiti struggles with cholera, political violence from a disputed election and stalled earthquake reconstruction efforts. Prosecuting Mr Duvalier poses further challenges to an already overstretched Caribbean nation.

Mr Duval witnessed "two people, three people, dead a day" while locked inside Fort Dimanche, the notorious prison of the Duvalier era, with 40 convicts jammed inside a stinking cell only a few square metres in size. "They got sick and died," he said.

"They left me with my pants and my shirt, which we used for toilet paper," he said in an interview in Haiti's rubble-strewn capital. "The food they give you in the morning is like a hotdog bun, one. Then, at 12, they give you some grits, you had to throw it on the floor to eat it because it was so hot."

Mr Duval, a divorcee with two children, was arrested in April 1976 upon his return to Haiti after studying in the United States and Canada. He says he "got fired up" and drew attention to himself by criticising the back-to-back dictatorships of Mr Duvalier and his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

"They never gave me a trial or anything, I just disappeared," he said. "When I got picked up, they accused me of trying to overthrow the government or some rubbish. They just decided to kill me. That is why they sent me to Fort Dimanche."

Mr Duval describes spending 17 months behind bars in various jails before benefiting from international pressure, particularly after Jimmy Carter became US president in January 1977 and shone a spotlight on human-rights abuses.

Even after his release that September, he says was harassed by the Duvalier apparatus, which he describes as a "well-oiled machine" of repression that began with Papa Doc's election in 1957 and did not end until the junior Duvalier was booted out in 1986.

Mr Duval's story is not uncommon. The New York-based Human Rights Watch says thousands of Haitians were killed and tortured and hundreds of thousands more were forced into exile after 1971, when the 19-year-old Baby Doc was made "president for life" upon his father's death.

The Duvaliers' paramilitary group for spreading fear, the so-called Tontons Macoutes, or "Bogeymen", had swelled to 15,000 by the mid-1980s, but failed to break a national wave of protests that forced Baby Doc to flee to France.

Mr Duvalier's return after 25 years in exile has provoked a firestorm in Haiti, with many suggesting the 59-year-old ex-dictator is looking for money or political power. He still has support among members of the small, black, middle class that emerged under Duvalier rule.

On Thursday, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, warned Security Council members that Mr Duvalier's return would have an "unpredictable impact". Another diplomat from the 15-nation UN body was more direct, privately saying: "What the hell is he doing there?"

Mr Duvalier ended his silence at a news conference late on Friday, saying he returned to take part in the reconstruction of the earthquake-shattered country. Speaking in a faint voice, he said he was ready to face "persecution" and had timed his return to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the January 12, 2010, earthquake. "When I made the decision to come back to Haiti to commemorate this sad anniversary with you, in our country, I was ready for any kind of persecution," Mr Duvalier said. "But I believe that the desire to participate by your side in this collaboration for the national reconstruction far outweighs any harassment I could face."

Police briefly detained Mr Duvalier on Tuesday and prosecutors presented formal charges of corruption and embezzlement, though questions remain over the more serious allegations of torture, disappearances and other atrocities.

Amnesty International presented Haitian prosecutors with more than 100 documents on Friday detailing cases of torture and extrajudicial executions. It claimed Haitian authorities said they are probing Mr Duvalier for crimes against humanity during his 15-year rule.

"What we need to see now is a swift and impartial process, in line with international standards, that truly brings justice for those who have been waiting for too long," said the group's Gerardo Ducos.

Richard Dicker, a legal expert for Human Rights Watch, pointed to flaws in Haiti's judicial system and the problem of impunity for crooked politicians, saying rich countries should support an inevitably complex and expensive prosecution.

"In the light of Haiti's debilitated impoverished situation we believe the solution isn't more impunity, but rather very focused international donor state support to assist the Haitian justice system, which is fragile at best," Mr Dicker said.

Mr Duval, a former football player who now runs sports programmes for Haitian children, said the one-time dictator "destroyed whatever was left of this country" and should face justice.

Like many of Haiti's 9.7 million people, Mr Duval has his own thoughts on what has led to the return of Baby Doc.

"I think he's got a bunch of people around him that are flattering him, that are making money off him too, if he still has some money left," Mr Duval said. "They're saying, 'things have changed … and the governments have not done much here in this country and people are dissatisfied and things were better when you were here'.

"He probably believed that. But that's stupid of him."

jreinl@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press