PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti » Haitian authorities moved toward trying Jean-Claude Duvalier for alleged corruption and embezzlement during his brutal 15-year rule, opening an investigation against the former dictator whose unexpected return from exile took an already tense nation by surprise.
The former strongman known as "Baby Doc" was questioned by judges for hours behind closed doors in a court in Haiti’s capital Tuesday, defense attorney Gervais Charles said. The case is now in the hands of a judge of instruction who will decide whether there is enough evidence to go to trial, Charles said. The process that can take up to three months.
Haiti’s system allows for pretrial detention, but Duvalier was allowed to remain free and returned to his hotel room under police escort following the questioning. He cannot leave the country, however. 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."
Several hundred Duvalier supporters gathered outside the court, burning tires, chanting slogans and calling for the arrest of President Rene Preval, then cheering as Duvalier left the courthouse. Earlier, some supporters had tried to block streets with overturned trash bins and rocks to keep police from taking Duvalier from his hotel to the courthouse.
There are no signs of widespread support for Duvalier, however. Demonstrations on his behalf have been relatively small by Haiti standards. More than half the nation’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, and comes as Haiti struggles 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.
Fifty-six-year-old Chal Christen, waved a flag of Duvalier’s political party — one he said he’d had stored away since the one-time "president for life" was deposed in a popular uprising and forced into exile nearly 25 years ago.
"We don’t have food, our houses collapsed, our children can’t go to school. It’s Preval that is the dictator," Christen said. "We want Duvalier for president. Under him we ate well, we were safe."
Fenel Alexi, a 31-year-old mechanic, watched the scene and denounced both Duvalier and Preval, a former anti-Duvalier activist.
"The citizens of this country have endured so much crime," Alexi said. "We haven’t had a president who hasn’t committed crimes."
Duvalier was removed from the hotel after meeting in private with senior Haitian judicial officials inside his hotel room amid calls by human rights groups and others for his arrest.
The country’s top prosecutor and a judge were among those who met with the former leader in the high-end hotel where he had been ensconced since returning to Haiti.
Dozens of Haitian National Police officers were posted inside and around the hotel, some of them in riot gear or guarding the stairwells.
Henry Robert Sterlin, a former ambassador under Duvalier who has said in recent days that he was speaking as a spokesman for the former dictator, told reporters at the scene he was shocked by the developments. "Let’s see if they put him in prison," he said.
Duvalier assumed power in 1971 at age 19 following the death of his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The father and son presided over one of the most brutal chapters in Haitian history, a period when a secret police force known as the Tonton Macoute tortured and killed opponents. The private militia of sunglass-wearing thugs enforced the Duvalier dynasty’s absolute power and lived off extortion.
At Fort Dimanche, a fortress prison, Haitians were executed or died of malnutrition during the 1957-1986 Duvalier dictatorships. Ripples of pain and violence stemming from the Duvalier family’s dictatorship over 29 years still deeply scar many Haitians, including those who were forced into exile abroad.
Duvalier has also been accused of pilfering millions of dollars from public funds and spiriting them out of the country to Swiss banks, though he denies stealing from Haiti.
The U.N. 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 15-year 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.
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.