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Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier dies at 63

Jean-Claude Duvalier with his bride, Michele Bennett, during their wedding ceremony in the Port-au-Prince National Cathedral in 1980 Keystone


This content was published on October 5, 2014 - 10:53
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has died of a heart attack, closing the book on a political dynasty notorious for corruption and human rights abuses in the hemisphere’s poorest country. 

Millions of dollars allegedly stolen by Duvalier have sat in Swiss bank accounts for years, with new laws – such as the “Lex Duvalier” – allowing the government to freeze, confiscate and pave the way for the eventual return of looted funds. 

Duvalier, whose death on Saturday was confirmed by his lawyer, inherited power from his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, aged just 19 in 1971, but fled into exile in 1986 during a popular uprising which ended 28 years of rule by the father-and-son dynasty. 

Known for his playboy lifestyle, he was said to have illicitly amassed at least $300 million (CHF290 million) from skimming money from government contracts. He was alleged to have fled Haiti with more than $100 million stashed in European bank accounts. 

Haiti asked Swiss authorities to freeze $5 million in 1986, but returning them proved hard because Haiti failed to mount a legal case. Duvalier almost won the money back by default in 2002 when the statute of limitations kicked in. Switzerland extended the order by invoking constitutional powers which allow it to freeze assets to safeguard national interests. 

In 2011, it introduced the “Lex DuvalierExternal link”, which allowed the authorities to freeze and confiscate allegedly looted funds from failed states that are unable to mount a case against a corrupt official. It reverses the burden of proof, requiring those accused to prove they obtained money legally. 

“Once confiscated, the assets will be returned to Haiti in order to improve the living conditions of the Haitian people,” the Swiss government has said. 

Criminal case 

After spending 25 years in France, Duvalier returned to his Caribbean homeland in January 2011 and was briefly detained on charges of corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds. 

A Haitian court in February ruled that Duvalier could be charged with crimes against humanity under international law, and that he could also be held responsible for abuses by the army and paramilitary forces under his rule. 

Duvalier consistently denied any responsibility for abuses committed while he was in office. 

It was a “shame” Duvalier died before could be put on trial, said Reed Brody of New York-based Human Rights Watch, who helped Duvalier’s victims build the criminal case. 

Under Duvalier, “hundreds of political prisoners held in a network of prisons died from mistreatment or were victims of extrajudicial killings”, he said. 

“Duvalier’s government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations. Journalists were beaten, in some cases tortured, jailed and forced to leave the country.” 

Luxurious lifestyle 

While in office the self-proclaimed “President For Life”, became a portly poster-child for wanton misrule, failing to address the poverty and illiteracy of Haitians, while his family and friends indulged in a luxurious lifestyle. 

Duvalier relied on terror to keep his people at heel in the style of his father, a former country doctor who enforced his rule through the dreaded Tonton Macoutes, a paramilitary force of secret police agents, while also exploiting popular superstitions surrounding the native voodoo religion. 

Duvalier lived at the centre of power from the age of five, when his father won national elections in the former French slave colony and first independent black state in the Americas. 

In May 1980 he married Michelle Bennett, a young divorcee, in a union seen as improving Duvalier’s relations with the Creole middle class disaffected by Papa Doc’s heavy hand and sinister ways. 

The younger Duvalier suppressed all effective opposition during his 15-year term until his overthrow. 

As his problems grew, he sought to improve his international image by relaxing his iron fist, but opponents continued to be arrested, often ending up in exile. 

Bennett became a lightning rod for criticism due to her regular shopping expeditions to the most expensive stores in Europe, seemingly contemptuous of the poverty outside the iron gates of Haiti’s imposing presidential palace in downtown Port-au-Prince. 

Papal visit 

In 1983 Duvalier welcomed Pope John Paul II to the island, although the pontiff declared that Haitians lacked “everything that permits a truly human existence”. 

His dramatic fall from power came after two months of widespread demonstrations and the withdrawal of support for his regime by the United States, which helped him escape. 

He sought refuge in France, leaving behind jubilant Haitians dancing in the street. 

Soon after he returned to Haiti in 2011, taking up residence in a villa in a posh suburb in the hills above the capital Port-au-Prince, Duvalier issued a brief apology to victims of his government. 

The corruption and human rights charges he faced after his return from exile were closely watched by international observers who considered it an important test of Haiti’s weak justice system after decades of dictatorship, military rule and economic mayhem.

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