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RSF open letter to presidential candidates calls for break with culture of impunity

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is a 10 October 2005 RSF press release:

Open letter to candidates in the 20 November and 3 January presidential elections
Future president must break with culture of impunity

For the attention of:

Charles H.J. Marie Baker, Marc Louis Bazin, Casimir Bélizaire, Joël Borgella, Philippe Jean-Hénold Buteau, Claude Bonivert, Paul Denis, Hubert Deronceray, Marc Antoine Destin, Joseph Rigaud Duplan, Edouard Francisque, Reynold Georges, Serge Gilles, Gérard Gourgue, Jean Chavannes Jeune, René Julien, Emmanuel Justima, Leslie Manigat, Luc Mésadieu, Samir Georges Mourra, Evans Nicolas, Evans Paul, Frantz Perpignan, Guy Philippe, René Préval, Himmler Rébu, Franck François Romain, Charles Poisset Romain, Judie Roy, Yves Maret Saint-Louis, Jean Jacques Sylvain and Dany Toussaint.

Dear Candidates,

The campaign for the presidential and legislative elections of 20 November and 3 January has just officially begun. You are all running for the post of president of Haiti. As you are aware, being a candidate entails a commitment. The next president will not just have to defend the constitution and maintain the balance of powers. As depository of the Haitian people's vote, it will also be your duty to consolidate a true democratic culture in Haiti, of which press freedom must be one of the pillars.

The situation of journalists and the media is a key indicator of a country's democratic health. Reporters Without Borders, an organisation dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, again saw how true this is during a field mission to Haiti from 22 to 28 September. It emerged from the visit, which included meetings with journalists and media executives, as well as lawyers, judges, police officers, human rights activists and culture and communication minister Magali Comeau Denis, that 2005 has been a very mixed year. This spurs us to be especially vigilant. We hope our vigilance will be shared and will be translated into action by the person who enters the National Palace on 7 February.

In the course of this visit and the preceding one in June 2004, Reporters Without Borders saw an improvement in respect for press freedom since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's fall from power on 29 February 2004. The journalists we met said they were under less pressure, had more editorial freedom and did not fear reprisals from the state apparatus. Despite this progress, the prevailing level of political and criminal violence is still alarming and the press continues to be especially exposed to it.

The first quarter of 2005 was marked by the tragic shooting of 24-year-old Laraque Robenson of radio Tele Contact in Petit-Goâve. He sustained bullet wounds to the head and neck during a shootout between former Haitian soldiers and a detachment of peacekeepers from the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) on 20 March and died of his injuries in a Cuban hospital on 4 April. The fatal shots were alleged to have fired by peacekeepers. MINUSTAH carried out an internal investigation but never released its findings. This episode highlighted the problems of cooperation between the peacekeeping force and the transitional government. Restoration of the rule of law will depend on the relations between MINUSTAH and the government that emerges from the elections.

MINUSTAH and Haiti's police and judicial authorities have until now still not managed to dismantle the arsenal of some 200,000 illegal firearms circulating within Haiti. Nor have they succeeded in neutralising the approximately 100 gangs that operate with complete impunity and have made kidnapping their speciality in the past year. MINUSTAH estimates that six million dollars have been paid in ransoms during the past six months. The Haitian press has paid a high price in this climate of terror.

Nancy Roc, the presenter of the radio magazine Métropolis on Radio Métropole, fled the country on 16 June after getting phone calls for nearly a week threatening her with kidnapping. Roc, who had been investigating arms and drug trafficking, finally decided she had to go after receiving an anonymous call telling her that her abduction was now just "a question of hours." Radio Métropole station manager Richard Widmaier had himself narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt in Port-au-Prince just five days before, on 11 June.

Jacques Roche, a columnist and arts and culture editor at the daily Le Matin, was not so lucky. Kidnapped on 10 July in Port-au-Prince, he was found dead four days later. The state of his body indicated he was tortured with extreme cruelty. Investigators established that the kidnappers initially demanded a ransom of 250,000 dollars for his release, and that Roche's family and Le Matin paid them 10,000 dollars on the afternoon of 11 July. After at first insisting on getting the remaining 240,000 dollars, the kidnappers reduced their demand on 13 July to 50,000 dollars. But in the meantime, they had begun to realise who Roche was and that, in particular, he presented a programme on Télé Haïti and the national TV station on behalf of the "Group of 184," a coalition which had spearheaded protests against former President Aristide. A Le Matin journalist who had the job of negotiating with the kidnappers was told: "You had President Aristide kidnapped and, in so doing, you taught us kidnapping." At first just criminally-motivated, Roche's abduction had become political.

Roche's suspected kidnappers all belong to a gang called the "Rat Army" that operates in the Port-au-Prince district of Bel-Air. Three of them were arrested by MINUSTAH and the Haitian National Police (PNH): Roger "Ti Edgard" Etienne on 16 July, and Flaubert Forestal and Jules Mentor on 22 July. The names (or aliases) of the following participants in Roche's kidnapping and murder emerged during interrogation: Alamaskay, Ti Réginald, Peter Dan Sere (who was shot dead during a MINUSTAH operation in September), Johnny Céron, Dérosiers Becker (aka Tiyabout) and Nicolas Augudson (aka General Toutou). Reporters Without Borders welcomes the investigation's rapid progress but thinks the suspects still at large should now be quickly located and arrested. Their arrests would severely weaken the Rat Army's control of Bel-Air, which the Haitian press still does not dare to enter. Our organisation also hopes that those detained receive due process and an early trial.

This is one of the major challenges for the next government. The president and administration that emerge from the coming elections must break with the culture of impunity that is jeopardising the future of democracy in Haiti. Reporters Without Borders will therefore continue to campaign for the truth to be revealed about the two murders which are unfortunately emblematic of this persistent impunity and the serious and chronic judicial malfunctioning that allows it to continue - the murders of Jean Dominique and Brignol Lindor.

To read the full letter, visit:

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