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Haiti: human rights activists in the line of fire

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The murder of human rights leader and activist Daniel Dorsinvil and his wife Girldy Larêche during the afternoon of February 8 while walking in the Canapé Vert area of Port-au-Prince has once again raised questions about the dangers for those working in the defence of human rights in Haiti.  

Dorsinvil was the General Coordinator of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organisations (known by the French acronym POHDH), a coalition of eight non-profit human rights groups geared to promoting grassroots education and respect for human rights among the public.   

Despite claims by the Secretary for State for Public Security Reginald Delva that the killings of Dorsinvil and Larêche could have been the result of an armed robbery, the manner in which the shootings were carried out suggests that other motives might have been at work. 

Daniel Dorsinvil. Photo: habitants.orgDorsinvil was shot in the heart, while Larêche was shot five times.  As parliamentary deputy Ronald Larêche, brother of the deceased said, the killer who apparently fled the scene on a motorbike made sure that both were dead. 

Amnesty International, the London-based Haitian advocacy organisation Haiti Support Group, and human rights activists in Haiti itself have expressed the view that Dorsinvil and Larêche’s murder may have been politically motivated.  Antonal Mortimer, Executive Secretary of POHDH and Dorsinvil’s colleague, called it an ‘attack against the human rights sector’ and a ‘political crime’.  

The speed with which the Secretary of State for Public Security sought to attribute the attack to armed robbery has done little to alleviate the fears of the human rights community in Haiti that the crime will not be properly investigated by the authorities.

As a Haiti Support Group communique noted, this attribution of the crime to armed robbery seemed premature and only ‘serve[s] to raise doubts about the sincerity and commitment of the Haitian government to investigate the real motives’ for the murder.

Dorsinvil’s POHDH had openly criticised the government of President Michel Martelly, in particular its seeming lack of regard for human rights, and had expressed concern about the ‘judicial-political scandals’ in which the government has become embroiled.

Most recently, the POHDH had criticised President Martelly’s delaying of elections to fill vacant legislative and local seats, and had questioned the impunity that many of those implicated in human rights abuses continue to enjoy. 

As Amnesty International’s 2013 country report for Haiti noted, ‘Those responsible for serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, torture, rape and extrajudicial executions over the past four decades continued to evade justice’.  Foremost amongst these figures is the former dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier whose diplomatic passport was renewed in January 2013.  

Before he died, Dorsinvil was in the process of establishing the Patriotic People’s Democratic Movement (MPDP), another coalition organisation comprising some thirty political and social organizations opposed to the Martelly administration.

Patrice FlorvilusThese killings are not isolated incidents but are instead part of a wider narrative which has seen many Haitian human rights defenders threatened over the last few months.   As Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) put it, ‘threats, intimidation and harassment against lawyers and other human rights defenders is increasing in Haiti, and has had a chilling effect on lawyers challenging corruption and impunity in this government led by President Michel Martelly’.

In September 2013, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the human rights division of the Organization of American States, requested that the Haitian government take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of the members of Défense des Opprimés (Defenders of the Oppressed) and, in particular, its Executive Director Patrice Florvilus.

Florvilus received many threats and was sobject to intimidation after representing victims of police brutality, and was indicted on seemingly trumped-up charges of arson and conspiracy (charges brought by Reynold Georges, lawyer for Jean-Claude Duvalier).  Though those charges were dropped, Florvilus was forced to leave Haiti for Montreal, Canada in December 2013.  

This is not the first time that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has felt the need to issue ‘precautionary measures’ in support of those whose lives are in danger. The organisation intervened in the cases of Mario Joseph who had been threatened after representing victims of the Duvalier dictatorship, and of lawyers André Michel and Newton St. Juste who, along with Joseph, had filed a corruption suit against Sophia and Olivier Martelly, wife and son of President Martelly.  

The judge in the case Jean Serge Joseph died in suspicious circumstances two days after attending a meeting at which he was pressured to drop the charges against the Martellys.

On his recent trip to Washington DC, President Martelly discussed the issue of human rights with Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Congressional black caucus.  Assurances were made on issues such as the holding of elections. Time will tell whether Martelly will make good on his promises or whether he is ‘blowing smoke’.