On January 12, 2010, Haiti suffered a major earthquake that killed more than 230,000 people and, as a side effect, allowed thousands of prisoners to escape from the country’s most secure lock-up, the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince. Les Cayes, Haiti’s third largest city, took less damage, though the earthquake and aftershocks made everyone nervous – especially the 467 prisoners in the dilapidated and overcrowded Les Cayes prison.
Unlike the penitentiary which held convicted felons, including hundreds considered a threat to national security, three-quarters of the Les Cayes prisoners were awaiting trial. Many had minor or eclectic charges such as loitering, commercial debt, petty theft, and even practicing witchcraft or werewolfery.
“Understand, you can be arrested in Haiti for practically nothing,” said Maurice D. Geiger, an American contractor working on Haitian justice reform. “And once you are arrested and go to prison, it is not only possible, but likely that you will stay there for an extended period of time without seeing a judge.”
The detainees in the Les Cayes prison’s 14 crumbling concrete cells, frightened by the earthquake and jolted by continuing aftershocks, began screaming to be released and tried to open the cell doors. When they wouldn’t calm down, guards removed the loudest of the protesting prisoners, beat them with batons and threw them into the most crowded cells in the prison, which already held more than four times its design capacity. Twice-daily bathroom privileges were suspended and a waste bucket was placed in each cell.
In Cell 3, the response to the assaults was to begin planning an escape under the leadership of Luguens Cazeau, also known as Ti Mousson, a pretrial detainee accused of stealing a satellite dish and a victim of the guards’ beatings. Prisoners began digging at the walls and sharpening a toothbrush handle. A detainee in Cell 3 who was formerly a police officer informed the warden about the escape preparations, according to a since-released prisoner.
During the aftermath of the earthquake, the prison’s warden, Inspector Sylvestre Larack, called a “maximum alert” but had a hard time getting his 29 guards to show up. Only five guards came to work on January 19, 2010. Larack then went to fill up his car, even though it meant his absence from the facility for several hours.
That was the break that Ti Mousson was waiting for. The prisoners in Cell 3 jumped and stabbed a guard who had opened the door to dump the waste bucket, and gained control of his keys. The guards fled, leaving the detainees in control of the prison. However, the facility was already surrounded by Haitian police and UN peacekeepers from a Senegalese police unit.
After three hours of discussion, Haitian officials ordered the better-equipped UN officers to enter the prison and open fire on the prisoners. They emphatically refused.
“It was not right!” said Abdou Mbengue, the reporting officer for the Senegalese police unit. “It must be said that the Senegalese did not fire a single shot,” added the unit commander, Lt. Col. Ababacar Sadikh Niang.
Apparently, the same could not be said of the Haitian officers. Superintendent Olritch Beaubrun of Haiti’s antiriot police claimed that his men entered the facility after using tear gas and discovered bodies lying about. He said they didn’t fire any shots.
Uniformly, prisoners who were later released and three female employees – cooks – who were in the prison during the escape attempt accused the Haitian police of opening fire on detainees who were unarmed and surrendering.
“They shouted, ‘Prisoners, lie down. Lie down. Lie down,’” said Kesnel Jeudi, a released prisoner, describing the storming of the facility. “When the prisoners lay down – while the prisoners were lying down – they began firing.”
“All them people they killed, it’s not even like they were going to escape,” said another former prisoner who survived the police takeover of the prison. “They just shoot them. Like they nervous, they shoot people.”
In contrast, Inspector Larack’s report stated the police were met with “a hailstorm of rocks and ammunition coming from the detainees.” Yet no firearms or ammunition were recovered from the prison.
The three cooks said they were never threatened by prisoners and none of the prisoners fired on police officers. They said that some prisoners wanted to use them as human shields when the police stormed the facility, but others wouldn’t allow it.
“No detainees did any shooting,” said Charita Milien, one of the cooks. Her statement was corroborated by the fact that the police reported no officers killed or wounded by gunfire coming from the prison.
The Rev. Marc Boisvert, an American priest who has been providing vocational training at the Les Cayes prison for years, was allowed into the facility the day of the killings. He found prisoners with gunshot wounds left without medical treatment in the cells. He asked the prisoners what happened.
“They all claim that when the shooting started, they had their hands up and were surrendering,” said Father Boisvert, a former U.S. Navy chaplain. “The shooting seemed to be at close range, through bars into cells where the people inside had nowhere to go. Essentially, when the authorities finally got their act together, they came in full force and shot people indiscriminately in their cells. It was crazy. People just lost it. People with guns lost it, and other people lost their lives.”
That version of the killings was backed up by photographs taken by a UN officer that show bodies in the prison yard and in cells, some of which have multiple gunshot wounds. By the time the local justice of the peace arrived “to certify the damage incurred in the course of the riot,” no bodies remained in the cells. Instead, he saw ten bodies in the prison’s main yard. The morgue reported receiving 11 bodies of prisoners immediately after the police retook the facility, and several more arrived later after they apparently succumbed to their wounds. Various sources listed 12 to 19 prisoners killed in the incident, and up to 40 wounded.
Haitian officials did not notify family members of the prisoners’ deaths. They buried the bodies without autopsies and burned the prisoners’ bloody clothing. Haitian authorities maintained the prisoners were killed by other prisoners.
“Ti Mousson put down the 12 detainees,” said Police Superintendent Beaubrun. “We did not. We never fired our guns.”
Adding to the confusion was the fact that the prisoners had found several old guns in a clerk’s office at the prison. The released prisoners and a guard said they believed the guns did not work and did not have ammunition; however, the firearms disappeared from the facility before it was retaken by police, as did Ti Mousson, who escaped.
The UN Senegalese after-action report decried “the amateurism, the lack of seriousness and the irresponsibility of the Haitian National Police officers.”
The local prosecutor, Alix Civil, rejected the justice of the peace’s initial report after he viewed the aftermath at the prison. “A lot of things were missing from that report,” he said. “It was written only to please the chief of the prison.” The justice of the peace was ordered to redo his report.
Inspector Larack was promoted to warden of the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince. Several weeks later, a Haitian National Police inspector general’s report on prison officials’ conduct during the Les Cayes incident recommended that Larack be demoted; the report did not focus on the actions of the police.
However, a May 23, 2010 New York Times article on the killings put pressure on the Haitian government to do something, prompting President René Préval to establish a joint UN-Haitian commission to investigate the Les Cayes prison deaths. On May 27, 2010, Larack was taken into custody by the judicial police for questioning.
“As far as we’re concerned there was a major human rights violation in that prison,” said UN spokesman David Wimhurst. “It’s a delicate political business being in Haiti and supporting the government. We’re not here to undermine them, but nor are we here to turn a blind eye to gross human rights violations.”
The U.S. State Department and the Agency for International Development have requested $141.3 million in funding to help Haiti rebuild its justice system following the January 2010 earthquake. However, U.S. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee that finances foreign aid programs, in referring to the deaths at the Les Cayes prison, said, “Absent the will to see justice done, we should not waste our money.”
Sources: New York Times, BBC, Associated Press
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