Haiti judge demands Duvalier be brought to court

A Haitian judge demanded Thursday that former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier be brought to court next week to attend a hearing into whether to try him for crimes against humanity.

Judge Jean-Joseph Lebrun issued the order in the presence of lawyers acting for Duvalier and for the alleged victims of his regime, after the former leader failed for a third time to attend a scheduled hearing in the case.

"There are grounds for the court to declare that Jean-Claude Duvalier's appearance is imperative. It is therefore appropriate that he be brought here to appear before the court," Lebrun said.

The judge set a new hearing for Thursday next week and Frizto Canton, a member of Duvalier's legal team, responded: "Yes, we will bring him. We will respect the decision of the court."

A representative of global rights watchdog Amnesty International who was at the court, Beatrice Vaugrante, hailed the decision. "It's a victory for the victims' groups," she declared on Twitter.

Earlier, Duvalier's attorney Reynold Georges had indicated that his client -- who was overthrown in a 1986 revolt and only returned from exile two years ago -- had no intention of appearing in court.

Lawyers acting for alleged victims of his former regime had asked Lebrun's court to overturn an earlier ruling that it was too late to try Duvalier for rights abuses under Haiti's statute of limitations.

But Georges told Thursday's hearing that he had lodged a motion with Haiti's highest instance, the Court of Cassation, urging it to take on the case. In the meantime, he said, Duvalier would not appear.

Former opposition figures have accused Duvalier of deploying the feared Tonton Macoute militia and of complicity in murder, torture and kidnapping.

Duvalier was the world's youngest head of state when, at the age of just 19, he succeeded his autocratic late father Francois "Papa Doc" in 1971. He was overthrown in a revolt after 15 years of iron-fisted rule and fled to France.

Haiti, a republic on the western half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola populated mainly by the descendants of former slaves, has remained unstable and the poorest country in the Americas even since the fall of the regime.

Baby Doc returned to Haiti two years ago after 25 years in exile.

Now 61, he had initially been scheduled to appear in court on February 7, but failed to show up and instead sent a letter accusing the judge of unfairly taking the plaintiffs' side and demanding that the hearing be postponed.

He objected to the original hearing date because it was the anniversary of the 1986 day when he was overthrown in a popular revolt, and was thus a day fraught with political tension.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which sent observers to Thursday's hearing, have clamored for Haiti's justice system to ensure that Duvalier's alleged abuses not go unpunished.

The United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had issued a statement before the hearing was due to start, declaring that there should be no statute of limitations for rights abusers.

"I encourage the judicial authorities to act on their responsibilities and ensure the victims are provided with the long overdue justice they deserve," Pillay said.

"All those Haitians who suffered such abuses have a right to see justice is done. I encourage the judicial authorities to act on their responsibilities and ensure the victims are provided with the long overdue justice they deserve."