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Dubai: There’s one thing you can say about former Haitian president President Jean-Claude Duvalier — he came by his reputation for brutal honesty. He was born into it. It was, after all, the family business.

Last week, A Swiss appeals court rejected the appeal of former ‘Baby Doc’, who was seeking to prevent the confiscation of $5.5 million (Dh20.2 million) of his assets which have been frozen by the Swiss Government since 2002.

Barring a possible appeal to Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court, the assets may be repatriated to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010 killing 200,000 people.

At last week’s hearing, according to a statement published on the Swiss Federal Administrative Court’s website, the forfeiture of Duvalier’s assets was declared valid to preserve Swiss interests because the money held in Swiss banks was obtained “illicitly”.

Baby Doc became president aged 19 following the death of his father, Francois Duvalier — otherwise known as Papa Doc. In its entirety the Duvalier dynasty lasted nearly three decades.

It has been alleged that during that time the Duvalier regime stole government money running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Whilst the $5.5 million would represent a very small percentage of recoveries, the amount, however small, perhaps represents a symbol that there is no impunity. Others might say it is a pyrrhic victory.

The Swiss appeal court’s decision marks not only a potentially positive development for Haiti but an indication of Switzerland’s willingness to be proactive in helping States recover alleged corrupt assets.

In all, the Duvalier dynasty lasted about three decades and was marked by the family’s harsh repression of its opponents, with the help of a special police unit called the Tontons Macoute.

Duvalier went into exile in France in 1986. In the wake of his ouster, the country turned on his security forces, slaughtering them by the dozens and even desecrating Francois Duvalier’s mausoleum. His departure ushered in a period of halting democracy that has continued with tumultuous elections.

Duvalier long flirted with returning, telling reporters over the years that he would like to go home. In 2007, Rene Preval, the former president of Haiti, said Duvalier could return but would face justice for the money the government said he had looted from the treasury, as well as for the deaths and torture of political opponents at the hands of the secret police.

In January 2011, Duvalier returned to Haiti, saying he had come only to help his country, not to get involved in politics.

Angry reactions poured in from around the world, with human rights groups demanding that the Haitian government charge Duvalier with crimes against humanity — including the kidnapping, torture and murder of thousands of his opponents — and with stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the nation, the poorest in the hemisphere.

On the streets, there were signs that Duvalier’s arrival had started a new cycle of polarisation that has crippled the country for decades, his red-and-black stripe supporters fighting in the streets with his opponents. Some decried Duvalier as a vestige of one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history, while others waxed nostalgic about him as the only hope for change in Haiti.

Haitian prosecutors charged Duvalier with corruption and embezzlement, and he was taken into police custody. He was released hours later, but was ordered to remain in Haiti while a judge considered whether there was sufficient evidence to send Duvalier to trial.

He has faced threats of prosecution in the past for the many human rights abuses committed during his rule, and for the hundreds of millions of dollars government officials have said he looted from the country.

Duvalier’s risky return home from France may have been driven by another motivation: money.

Though Duvalier has long been accused of looting $300 million before fleeing, his lawyers and friends have said that much of his money was squandered on a lavish lifestyle of jewellery, chateaus, fancy cars and a very expensive divorce from his ex-wife.

But with the money now frozen in Switzerland, Duvalier has publicly vowed to make every effort to get it. Haitian officials, human rights advocates and political analysts believe that Duvalier came back to the country for the sole purpose of making an end run around a new law that will make it harder for him to do that.

In 2011 Switzerland passed legislation to enable countries to obtain the restitution of funds banked offshore by despotic former rulers without producing a domestic court conviction. The legislation, nicknamed the ‘Duvalier Law’, took effect after growing international pressure following revelations that financial institutions had accepted money from former dictators including the former Presidents Duvalier, Marcos and Nigeria’s Sani Abacha.

At the time of implementing the legislation, Valentin Zellweger, a director at the Swiss foreign ministry’s department of international law, said that “Haiti’s judiciary is too weak to follow up with the proceedings. Switzerland’s new law is designed to fill that gap”.

During his years in power, the state apparatus surrounding Papa and Baby Doc was brutal, as detailed in evidence given to a Port-au-Prince court by two men who were imprisoned in ghastly conditions for months without charge under the government of the former dictator and his father

Agronomist Alix Fils-Aime described his time at the Fort Dimanche prison in the 1970s, saying most of the people held with him were tortured and killed.

“I was able to hear people being beaten, dragged in the hallway, and I could hear women screaming as they were being forced to have sexual relations with the guards,” he said.

The other plaintiff, Robert “Boby” Duval, spoke about how he was lucky to eat a bowl of grits once a day while locked up in the same prison. He added that up to 40 prisoners in a single cell shared a bucket as a toilet.

Human rights activists decried a Haitian judge’s decision not to try Baby Doc Duvalier for human rights violations.

But maybe the Swiss foreign ministry official got it right. Haiti courts have ruled that he cannot face trial from his alleged human rights abuses as the statute of limitations has run out. It’s a decision that has angered many.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights believes Duvalier must be prosecuted for the allegations that include torture, rape and extrajudicial killings.

For now, he remains under a loose form of house arrest — but there’s little desire in the powerful to see justice done.


— With inputs from agencies