Even by the grim standards of Haiti, the prison massacre in Les Cayes after the Jan. 12 earthquake is chilling. According to an investigation in The Times by Deborah Sontag and Walt Bogdanich, a dozen or more prisoners were killed and up to 40 were wounded after police stormed the prison to put down a riot.
The government claims that a prison ringleader slaughtered other inmates before escaping. The Times found witnesses who told a different story — of days of abuse after the earthquake and then the murder of inmates by police.
Many of Haiti’s prisons were shattered during the quake, allowing inmates to flee. In Les Cayes, in western Haiti, the walls held. When prisoners panicked, guards beat the noisiest men, shoving them into cells that were already brutally crowded. A week later, a few dozen men tried to escape and set off a riot. Inmates rampaged loose for hours inside as the Haitian federal police and United Nations troops surrounded the prison.
When the police stormed the prison, witnesses said, they shot defenseless victims at close range. Some prisoners seemed to have been singled out for execution. Others were shot indiscriminately. A Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Marc Boisvert, who entered the prison while it was “still smoldering,” said inmates told him that prisoners trying to surrender were shot through the bars of their locked cells. Bodies were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. The survivors’ blood stained clothes were burned.
The Haitian government says it is investigating, but The Times found no indication that witnesses had been interviewed, bodies exhumed or even basic evidence collected. The United Nations mission in Haiti has ordered an independent inquiry.
The earthquake, and the huge commitment of international aid, are supposed to be a chance to finally create a Haitian government that is respectful of all its citizens’ rights. The United Nations and the international community — particularly the United States — have enormous leverage and a parallel responsibility to help Haiti create a credible judicial system. Reforming the country’s nightmarish prisons, filled with detainees who have not yet been tried, is an essential part of that.
It would be best if Haiti’s government could conduct a full and transparent investigation. That appears unlikely. President René Préval must ensure that the United Nations’ investigators have access to all forensic evidence, witnesses, police officers and prison officials. The government also must be prepared to prosecute anyone implicated in the attacks. The first step to building a new Haiti is figuring out what really happened at Les Cayes, and ensuring that it never happens again.
Some of those executed were executed with the knowledge and approval of Rene Preval and his associates. They were leaders of gangs in competition with those controlled by President Rene Preval and his partners.
Others were shot indiscriminately, to make it look like this was just a simple massacre.
Nothing in Haiti is simple!
Preval created a situation in which he could eliminate problem elements, and have the crime blamed on others.
An unbiased investigation will reveal the truth.
It is there for those who seek it.