One of the most horrendous prison atrocities exposed in recent memory is the basis of a strange and inspiring trial in Haiti. A week after devastating earthquakes ravaged Haiti’s capital city, a group of inmates attempted to escape from a primitive prison in Les Cayes. In response, guards indiscriminately massacred at least a dozen trapped and defenseless men.
The guards initially claimed that during the escape attempt, a prisoner had gained control of a gun and murdered his fellow inmates. This was debunked by an investigation by the New York Times, which reported that “Haitian authorities shot unarmed prisoners and then sought to cover it up” by burying the bodies in unmarked grave.
Almost two years later, those guards are standing public trial in a sweltering courtroom in Les Cayes. According to this riveting report by Walt Bogdanich and Deborah Sontag in the New York Times, hundreds of townspeople are attending a trial that will, many hope, affirm Haiti’s progress toward embracing rule of law.
21 police officers and the warden of the prison have been charged, but are not yet in custody. Josué Pierre-Louis, Haiti’s new justice minister, has been in attendance, perhaps recognizing the symbolic significance of the event. “Haiti has a reputation for impunity,” he told the Times. “This trial is a valuable opportunity to show justice is working, to show that no one is above the law.”
There’s an old saying that you can tell how developed the country is by whether the courts or the military enforces the laws of society. The public, but somewhat zany, nature of the trial—vendors are selling booze outside—accurately represents a country struggling to turn the tide on a powerful history of corruption and abuses of power.
Haiti has been here before. In 2000, dozens of former military and paramilitary officials were tried for slaughtering people living in the slums of Raboteau. The officials were convicted, but the ruling was overturned and the precedent of injustice was sustained.
This new trial has the potential the be a massive step in the right direction, but the old ways aren’t going down with out a fight. Defense lawyers stormed out of the court after a particularly heated exchange with the judge. The prosecution and witnesses have reportedly been threatened, and one wonders what will happen if anything serious happens to the people involved.
And it’s also true that one case won’t overcome the inertia of existing corruption. The legal system will need to grow along with the economic system, and backsliding will be a constant threat, especially if the United States or other major aid providers are forced or choose to cut back.
However for now the mood in Les Cayes is optimistic. The intensely public nature of the trial at least serves to dramatize the struggle and bring international eyes on the prison tragedies. Let’s hope this case becomes a landmark one in Haiti’s history–for all the right reasons.