Quiet relief over a fugitive's freedom U.S. release of prisoner avoids pressures on Haiti

August 04, 1996|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

When the United States released Haiti's most wanted man from a Maryland jail recently instead of deporting him as promised to face trial on charges of murder and torture, Haitian leaders noisily objected.

But behind their protests, some U.S. and Haitian officials say, Haitian leaders felt what they could not publicly admit: relief.

They shared U.S. fears that the return of Emmanual "Toto" Constant -- whose Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) is accused of hundreds of atrocities against supporters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- would test the country's judicial system beyond its limits.

"We know that the system is weak," Kleber Vielot, cabinet chief of Haiti's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a telephone interview.

"My personal view is that if Toto Constant comes back, anything could happen. People here may be saying it among friends, but officially the government will never say that."

Aristide apparently confided similar, personal views during a visit to Washington a few days after Constant's release June 14. Asked if he were upset with the U.S. decision, Aristide insisted he was not, said an adviser to the Aristide Foundation, who asked not to named.

"He said 'We're not in a position to hold him; we're not in a position to try him,' " said the adviser, recalling the conversation.

"It's just very difficult for sovereign governments to admit their weakness," he said. "Aristide and [Haitian President Rene] Preval both want their people to think they can control things. Right now it's just too hard for them to admit they can't handle it.

"And it might encourage people like Constant."

Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based lawyer for the government of Haiti, said he is unaware of any doubts among officials seeking Constant's return.

"I talk to both Preval and Aristide frequently, and in all my conversations they have told me without question they want Constant back," Kurzban said.

Constant, a former paid CIA informant, fled Haiti after Aristide's return to power and came to the United States.

In early 1995, Secretary of State Warren Christopher ordered him arrested and asked that all possible steps be taken to deport him to Haiti.

Constant was picked up by immigration officials in New York City in May 1995 and spent more than a year in the Wicomico County Detention Center on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Despite a judge's deportation order, Constant was released under a secret agreement with the United States that allows him to remain and work here indefinitely, and opens the way for him to go to a country other than Haiti.

In exchange, Constant agreed to drop a federal lawsuit against Christopher in which he alleged he was being illegally detained, and claimed to have collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency to undermine Aristide's return to power.

U.S. officials said their main fear is that Haiti's fragile justice system is incapable of handling Constant, and they worry that he could stir up further trouble there.

Whatever private conflicts exist for Haiti regarding Constant's return, U.S. officials say, they understood that Haiti had no choice in public but to demand that he be returned.

In explaining Constant's release, the State Department took pains to note that Haitian officials were not involved with the decision.

Even so, said a National Security Council official, "We believe they understand why we took this position, that it's in their interest and ours."

A U.S. intelligence official who has worked with Haitian issues for many years said that Haitian officials want Constant back -- "but I don't think anytime in the near future."

"Everything down there is kind of hanging by a thread as it is," the official said.

Haiti's less-than-aggressive efforts to seek Constant's extradition also cast doubt on its eagerness to see Constant returned for trial.

Although Haiti filed an extradition request last year, the State Department said, the documents failed to link Constant with the crimes with which he has been charged.

The department rejected the request but offered Haiti assistance in reapplying.

Haiti never sought help and never filed a new request.

Kurzban, the lawyer for the Haitian government, says officials there are working to strengthen the case for extradition and will refile at some future date.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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