Haiti court paves way for Duvalier trial

A Haitian appeals court paved the way Thursday for ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier to stand trial, ordering further investigation into whether he committed crimes against humanity during his 15-year rule.

A decision on whether to try Duvalier, known as "Baby Doc," will be taken after a member of the three-judge panel interviews plaintiffs and senior Duvalier regime officials about allegations of human rights abuses and embezzlement.

His lawyers vowed to appeal.

The court said Duvalier, 62, could be charged with committing human rights abuses because there is no statute of limitations on such crimes, overturning a lower court ruling.

"There are obvious indications that Jean-Claude Duvalier indirectly participated and is legally responsible because he refrained from taking reasonable and necessary measures to prevent these crimes and punish those responsible," Judge Jean Joseph Lebrun said.

Duvalier's lawyers had claimed the complaints should be thrown out of court because they concerned events that took place more than two decades ago.

Several complaints have been filed against Duvalier since he returned to Haiti in 2011 from exile in France. They concerned illegal arrests, torture, prison and forced exile for political opponents. But no trial has yet taken place.

Duvalier had ruled his country with an iron fist from 1971 until his ouster in a popular revolt in 1986.

Mario Joseph, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, hailed the "good decision."

"This is a historic victory for a country in which the rich and powerful have always been above the law," said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.

"If Jean-Claude Duvalier is tried for crimes against humanity, it will be the most important trial in Haitian history."

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 late autocratic father Francois "Papa Doc" in 1971.

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.