Repatriated Haitians tell of beatings, death threats

February 10, 1992|By Howard W. French | Howard W. French,New York Times News Service

MIAMI -- Dozens of refugees forcibly returned to Haiti in recent months have told United Nations officials that they suffered beatings, imprisonment, death threats, and other abuses that prompted them to flee their country a second time.

The statements, made to interviewers last month at the refugee camp set up by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, appear to undercut a key argument made by the Bush administration in defending its policy of forcibly returning Haitian boat people.

State Department officials have consistently said there was "no evidence" that any Haitians have suffered political repression upon their return.

A State Department official said these refugees' assertions were being investigated.

A U.N. official familiar with the cases called the accounts "sufficiently disturbing to warrant a review of policy toward the Haitians."

Refugee advocates said the statements would be introduced as evidence when the U.S. Supreme Court, as early as today, considers a final appeal to slow the return of the thousands of Haitians now being held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo.

More than 15,000 boat people have fled Haiti since October.

Following a long court-ordered delay, the Coast Guard resumed repatriations last week after the Supreme Court cleared the way for the returns.

The 42 Haitians who made the statements to U.N. refugee officials are officially known as "double-backers," for having made desperate second attempts to flee Haiti after returning to their country and encountering repression.

Lawyers for the refugees said that the Haitians had also been interviewed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and that 41 of the 42 were recently granted entry to the United States.

One of the Haitians told of how he had escaped from prison after having been returned to the island in November. While he was in jail, the refugee said, other returnees were removed from his cell and beaten. Prison guards said some of the returnees would be killed for having criticized their government, the Haitian said.

On Friday, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees delivered information condensed from its interviews with the 41 returned Haitians to Brunson McKinley, an ambassador-level official in the State Department's bureau of refugee programs.

A State Department official said his agency had learned of the accounts by the "double-backers" about a week ago from the interviews conducted at Guantanamo by the Immigration Service. Last week, the official said, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince was instructed to investigate several of the cases.

"We haven't confirmed this yet," the official said, denying that there had been any attempt to mislead either the public or the judiciary. "We'll see. Maybe it will be confirmed, maybe it won't.

"It is absurd to think that anyone could or would try to hide this because about 25 percent of the Haitian boat people have already been screened into this country to pursue asylum claims precisely because they have shown fears of individual persecution."

The spokesman for the Immigration Service, Duke Austin, also raised questions about the reliability of refugees' accounts in general, although he did not dispute the details related in these cases. "If you took everything in their interviews that was said, as a fact, then every Haitian would be waved in," he said.

On Friday, Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman, said in a briefing: "We have no evidence people were persecuted for having been sent back. We've said before that there are occasional allegations and stories, that our embassy and others try" to check out.

Citing their interviews, refugee advocates have called for a temporary halt in repatriations until the United States investigates their accounts and can insure that it is safe for others to be returned.

More than 10,000 Haitians remain at the tent camp at Guantanamo, and most of them are expected to be returned under the administration's policy.

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