AFP – Haitian ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide answered prosecutors’ questions Wednesday in a landmark investigation for the country over charges he used homeless children to get donations.
Thousands of Aristide supporters gathered outside a courthouse and poured into the streets to protest what they denounced as political persecution.
Among various accusations of corruption, a group of people has filed a complaint claiming they were among street children rescued by La Fanmi se la vi (Family is Life), a charity Aristide created in the 1990s.
They say Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest known as a champion of Haiti’s poor and reviled by the Caribbean nation’s elite, used the homeless children to get donations he then pocketed for his own expenses.
Aristide has never been charged.
Prosecutor Lucmane Delille questioned Aristide at his home in the northern outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Delille announced that a legal investigation was being launched.
The talks with Aristide and his lawyers lasted half an hour, according to his attorney Mario Joseph, who called the meeting “courteous and respectful.”
Aristide’s lawyers rejected the accusations of economic crimes, theft, abuse of confidence and criminal association as “political persecution,” Joseph added.
But Delille insisted that “this is not a question of political persecution.”
“It was my duty to listed to Aristide, who rejected the complaints. The case will go to the judge’s chambers,” he told AFP.
Another group of victims of bank fraud in 2003 accuses the former president of having taken personal advantage of the scam to the detriment of shareholders.
But Haiti’s first democratically-elected leader still enjoys broad support in a country that is the poorest nation in the Americas.
“We are here to support our leader. I am not changing sides,” said a protester from the Cite Soleil shantytown, a former Aristide Bastion.
The man, however, said he had voted for President Michel Martelly in the latest elections.
“The people in power do nothing for the masses. Now they want to persecute a son of the people,” said Peterson Joseph, leading police officers providing security in front of the court.
Ancyto Felix, a spokesman for Aristide’s Lavalas party, called on Martelly’s government to focus on stabilizing the quake-ravaged country to improve living conditions.
“There are many social demands, like high living expenses, unemployment and health problems, none of which will be solved by this court summons,” he said.
Aristide was president from 1991 to 2004, eventually leaving the country aboard a US Air Force plane into exile in South Africa amid political turmoil.
Now 59, Aristide returned to Haiti in March 2011 and has maintained a low profile.
Aristide returned just weeks after former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier also came back to Haiti.
A judge has recommended that Duvalier face trial for embezzlement. But Judge Jean Carves said that he should not face charges for the time being for allegations of crimes against humanity, despite a number of complaints filed against him.