Students work to bring justice in Haiti

BY MIKE WISER

For the thousands of victims of Haiti’s military regime, D. Austin Hare ’02 and Israel Soong’s ’01 clinical project wasn’t academic, it was about justice. The two spent part of the fall and winter terms helping lawyers hold the leaders of Haiti’s military coup accountable for the rapes and other crimes that human rights groups said were used to terrorize political opponents.

Soong and Hare assisted the three-lawyer Bureau des Avocats Internation-aux in Haiti in laying the legal foundations for a prosecution of crimes committed during the military regime’s rule of the country between 1991 and 1994. They spent the fall term examining principles of international law that would allow them to prosecute the offenders for crimes against humanity in a domestic court and to hold military commanders responsible for the actions of their troops. The project culminated in a three-week visit to Haiti in which they interviewed victims and crafted a complaint explaining why an investigating magistrate should begin proceedings against the military rulers.

The prosecutions stem out of the December 1990 military coup that ousted Jean-Bertrande Aristide and installed a military regime, fronted by …mile Jonassaint, until October 1994 when international pressure lead to the end of the military government. Human rights groups and the Bureau have reported widespread violations of human rights under the regime. In addition to other crimes, they have alleged that there was a widespread and systematic practice of raping women. “Basically, they used gang rape by soldiers and para-militaries to terrorize people and to suppress political dissent,” Soong said.

According to Hare, the extent of the crimes is still not known, but he said that the rapes were a frequent and daily occurrence under the military regime. He described a typical incident: “What would normally occur is that you’d have a family sleeping in a home or just enjoying a night of privacy in their home and there would be a knock on the door. And there would be a group of soldiers or paramilitary standing outside who would demand to see someone … Regardless of whether the person was there, they would enter and they would incapacitate, detain [or] restrain various members of the family and then proceed to rape the women and the girls of the house.”

Working some of the time in the offices of the Greater Boston Legal Services, Hare spent the fall examining how international laws relating to crimes against humanity could be applied in Haitian courts. In his final memorandum for the project, he examined the development of crimes against humanity, specifically rape. Hare provided the Bureau with a legal argument for why international laws against systematic and politically motivated rape might be enforced in Haiti’s domestic courts.

Hare and Soong hope to use international law as a supplement to criminal law, thereby expanding the net of who may be held responsible for the crimes. “What we are doing here is something new in that it is an attempt to use, to the extent possible, international law as a force to buttress the laws that already exist in national legislation,” Hare said.

Realizing that the key to the project would be to tie the former military leaders to the actions of their troops, Soong examined the responsibility of these commanders under international legal theory. He provided the Bureau with the legal precedent in customary international law for holding defendants criminally liable for the acts of their subordinates. “These leaders had control over the soldiers and paramilitaries. They knew these rapes were occurring. They knew they were widespread and systematic. And they did nothing to stop these rapes from happening or to prosecute those responsible,” Soong explained.

During three weeks in Haiti, the two saw the human toll the rapes had taken on the women and on the country. The two interviewed seven victims of the military regime to discover how their stories matched up with those reported by human rights groups. “It put faces with the stories and it was a very serious reminder of how grave the attacks were and how women were still suffering today from the violence that occurred almost ten years ago,” Hare said.

Soong explained the impact on the victims. “These rapes had terrible effects on the women and girls, on the victims themselves. Of course, all of them were severely traumatized psychologically, and some of them even contracted AIDS as a result of the assaults. There is a great stigma about rape in Haitian society, and these women would be ostracized by the community that knew what had happened to them. Sometimes, in some cases, even the husbands would no longer want to be with the wives,” he said.

Yet the trip to Haiti was not just a chance to see the victims first hand. It was an attempt to bring them justice. In the second part of the project, Soong and Hare focused on producing a general complaint that would be filed with the court. The complaint would initiate the proceedings of an investigating magistrate and would later be read at the beginning of a jury trial. The document, which Hare translated into French, presented the background of the incidents and explained the legal basis under the Haitian penal code and international law for bringing the perpetrators to justice.

The Bureau will work with this general complaint to insert the narratives of specific victims, but the work is far from over. Haiti suffers from a crippled justice system and a lack of lawyers able to pursue human rights prosecutions. Additionally, the prosecutions will face other difficulties. “There is no witness protection program in Haiti, and protecting these women who come forward to say that this happened to them is going to be really difficult. Probably a lot of the assailants are walking around the streets of Port-au-Prince as we speak. And so it is not going to be an open and shut kind of a thing. Especially in these conditions, with this kind of a judicial system,” Soong said.

For both Soong and Hare, the program was worth all of the difficulties. “If this case goes through, it will have a lot of symbolic value for a lot of Haitians. A lot of Haitians suffered under the military dictatorship and they want to see these military dictators be held responsible for the things they have done,” Soong said.

The project was first advertised at the law school by Arthur Kim ’00, the former head of Direct Action, who now works for the Bureau. Their work was part of The Haiti Project, which is in turn a joint project involving the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic and the Harvard Law School Human Rights Clinical. Deborah Anker, who directs the Clinic and oversaw the project with Peter Rosenblum, said that the project was “a huge success.”

Hare and Soong saw it that way, too. For Hare the project was a perfect fit. Working on a joint-degree program with Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, he has focused on international human rights and domestic civil rights. Soong, who is also working on a joint MPA with the Kennedy School of Government, said “I’m both a Christian and a lawyer. And the God I believe in is a God of justice. And getting justice for these victims who have not gotten justice is the whole reason I’m at law school.”

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