After over a week in jail, the charges against Haitian priest Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste have finally been made public by the government. Fr. Jean-Juste, a powerful advocate of the poor, was arrested October 13, 2004, by masked heavily armed gunmen while feeding 600 children at his parish of St. Claire in Port au Prince. The unelected government of Haiti has accused him of providing support for the opposition. At one point they suggested that he provided â€œguns and money for terrorists.â€
But lawyers for Fr. Jean-Juste have finally secured the official government documents which showing the priest is only charged with â€œtrouble a la ordre public,â€ disturbing the peace. Under Haitian law, this is a third class crime, like a traffic ticket, punishable by a fine of up to fifteen gouds, or forty cents US.
Yet, despite the minimal and artificial charge, Fr. Jean-Juste has not been released. Though Haitian law gives him the right to appear before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, no hearing is scheduled at all. Because he has been an outspoken critic of Haitiâ€™s unelected government, his lawyers have been advised that no judge will hear his case because it is â€œtoo political.â€ Many other political prisoners like him sit in other jail cells in Haiti â€“ others remain in hiding. Yet Fr. Jean-Justeâ€™s courageous Haitian lawyers continue to seek justice through the courts. No bond is available.
Fr. Jean-Juste now sits in the Haitian national penitentiary with over 1000 others, over 90% waiting to see a judge. Two weeks ago, there were 850 people in that jail. His penitentiary cell is not as crowded as the cell he shared with 18 others for his first 7 days in prison and he now has a bed. Though his spirits remain high, he is hurt by his isolation from family, friends, and most of all his parishioners.
When I spoke to him in the penitentiary, he was glad to find out that the three small children who were injured by the police in the arrest are still alive. The children appeared in public for the first time still bandaged from their wounds. He was cheered by news that Amnesty International, Paul Farmer, Rep. Maxine Waters and members of Congress, and representatives of human rights and church groups have taken up the cause of his freedom. But Fr. Jean-Juste is also quite worried. This is the message he asked me to share.
â€œI am grateful for all the great support I have received, particularly the religious, legal and financial support. Please help me continue to provide the social services to the poorest ones. My parish is located around the Haitian international airport. I am always begging for good care for the people as they live in a very crucial area.
â€œIt is very important to care for these people. If they suffer too much they will become like the neighborhoods like Bel-Air and Cite de Soleil, and the whole airport area will not be able to be used and all travel will stop.
â€œTake care of these people. Do not leave them hungry. Pave the roads to assist them. Fix the dangerous sewage problems. Taking me away has hurt them. I thank God I was able to help them with scholarships, food, clothing, transportation and religious services. But now others must help.
â€œI love my Haiti. I love my people. It is very important during my absence to provide them with social services and meet their basic human needs. I do not want them to be radicalized â€“ please help them. Do some good for them before it is too late.â€
When I asked him to say something about himself, he rocked his head back and laughed. â€œI love this experience,â€ he said. â€œI did not know this other world of prison. I thank God for the grace of placing me in this place. For the experience of knowing this other world, I forgive my accusers.â€
As Father Gerard Jean-Juste was taken back to his cell, I thought how expensive that 40 cent crime was likely to be for the unelected Haitian government.
*Fr. Jean-Juste asks that anyone who wants to help his parish, send donations to the parish c/o Margaret Trost and www.whatiffoundation.org For more information about his legal case, contact Mario Joseph in Haiti c/o the Institute for Justice and Peace in Haiti at www.ijdh.org or on his cell at 011.554.4284 or Bill Quigley at [email protected] or in Haiti at 011.509.401.4822.*
Bill Quigley ([email protected]) is a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. He writes from Haiti where he is one of the attorneys for Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste