PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier plans to remain in his Caribbean homeland even though authorities want him to leave the crisis-staggered country, one of his lawyers said Wednesday.
Reynold Georges told reporters that it is Duvalier’s right to remain in Haiti, but that he is free to go. He stressed that Haiti’s government has not ordered Duvalier to return to France following his surprise arrival Sunday.
“He is free to do whatever he wants, go wherever he wants,” Georges said of the once-feared strongman. “It is his right to live in his country … He is going to stay. It is his country.”
Georges said a Haitian judge who met with the former leader, who apparently does not have a valid Haitian passport, asked him when he planned to leave.
“They want him to leave,” he insisted.
Duvalier faces accusations of corruption and embezzlement for allegedly pilfering the treasury before his 1986 ouster. He returned to Haiti on Sunday evening after being exiled for nearly 25 years.
Haitian authorities moved toward trying Duvalier for alleged corruption and embezzlement during his brutal 15-year rule by opening an investigation Tuesday. Judges questioned him for hours behind closed doors in a court in Haiti’s capital, defence lawyer Gervais Charles said.
A judge of instruction will decide whether there is enough evidence to go to trial, Charles said. That process can take up to three months.
Duvalier was allowed to remain free and returned to his hotel room under police escort following the questioning.
His longtime companion Veronique Roy had earlier said Duvalier expected his trip from France, where he has lived in exile, would last three days.
“If he has to leave (the country), he will ask and he will leave,” Charles said. “As of now, he doesn’t even have a passport.”
There are no signs of widespread support for Duvalier.
Demonstrations on his behalf have been relatively small by Haiti standards. More than half the country’s people are too young to have lived through his government.
Duvalier has been accused in the past in Haiti of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in public money and overseeing the torture and killing of political enemies. He was not in handcuffs as he arrived at the courthouse Tuesday, nor was he handcuffed when he left.
His arrival Sunday was a surprise for a long-impoverished country that is struggling to work through a dire political crisis following the problematic Nov. 28 first-round presidential election, as well as a cholera epidemic and a troubled recovery from the devastating earthquake of a year ago.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have urged the Haitian government to arrest Duvalier for widespread abuses. Amnesty International issued a statement praising what it called “the arrest” of Duvalier but said it was just a start.
“If true justice is to be done in Haiti, the Haitian authorities need to open a criminal investigation into Duvalier’s responsibility for the multitude of human rights abuses that were committed under his rule including torture, arbitrary detentions, rape, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions,” the group said.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Tuesday that Duvalier’s return increases the chance that he could be charged with atrocities committed during his rule because it will be easier to bring charges in the country where the crimes occurred.
He cautioned, though, that Haiti’s fragile judicial system may be in no position to mount a case.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California congresswoman with long-standing interest in Haiti, said she was worried that wealthy Haitians may have promoted the return of the former dictator, hoping to benefit if he returns to power. A power vacuum is possible when Preval leaves office Feb. 7, she said.
“Duvalier’s return raises serious questions about who in Haiti facilitated his return and what his supporters expect to gain by bringing him back,” Waters said in a statement from Washington. “It is important that we determine what role U.S. officials played, if any, in facilitating Duvalier’s return.”
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the U.S. was surprised by Duvalier’s return. He said that the State Department was informed about Duvalier’s return about an hour before he landed at Port-au-Prince’s airport.
Duvalier and his family spent years living in luxury on the French Riviera, driving fancy sports cars and staying in exclusive villas. Following financial difficulties, Duvalier moved to the Paris region in 1993. He allegedly lost a large part of his fortune when he was separated from his free-spending wife. The Duvalier clan has waged a long-running battle to retrieve at least $4.6 million frozen in a Swiss bank.
For most of his exile, the ex-despot was quiet. But in September 2007, Duvalier took to Haitian radio from abroad to apologize for “wrongs” committed under his rule and urged supporters to rally around his fringe political party.
A handful of loyalists campaigned to bring Duvalier home from exile, launching a foundation to improve the dictatorship’s image and reviving his political party in the hope that he could one day return to power democratically.