Haiti's 'Baby Doc' Duvalier avoids appearing in court

Former Haitian leader Jean-Claude Duvalier leaving court in Port-au-Prince on 20 January 2012 Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986

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Haiti's former ruler Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has been ordered to appear in court in Port-au-Prince after failing to attend a hearing.

Relatives of some of those allegedly killed or tortured by his militias in the 1970s and 1980s want him charged with crimes against humanity.

Mr Duvalier had filed a last-minute appeal to avoid appearing in court.

The ex-leader, who returned to Haiti in 2011 after 25 years in French exile, had already missed two hearings.

He denies all charges, with his lawyers saying the case should be thrown out.

The courtroom was packed with relatives of his victims, lawyers in black robes, human rights observers and journalists.

A Haitian human rights lawyer, Mario Joseph, said: "Duvalier is trying to control the justice system like when he was a dictator."

Human rights groups say hundreds of political prisoners died from torture or were murdered under Mr Duvalier's rule from 1971 to 1986.

His unexpected homecoming two years ago prompted the Haitian authorities to open an investigation.

In January 2012, a court decided Mr Duvalier should stand trial for embezzling public funds but ruled that the statute of limitations had run out on charges of murder, arbitrary arrest, torture and disappearances.

However, Amnesty International and the Open Society Justice Initiative said the former leader "must not evade justice" for crimes against humanity. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has also said Mr Duvalier should face justice.

Symbolic

The court in Port-au-Prince is hearing an appeal by victims challenging the January 2012 ruling regarding the charges of human rights abuses.

Man holding up a photo Jean-Claude Duvalier in office Duvalier's trial could be a turning point for Haiti, correspondents say

Any future trial would be a symbolically crucial moment and a potential turning point for Haiti, says the BBC's Mark Doyle.

There is a widespread feeling in that the judiciary is biased in favour of the rich, he adds.

The appeal court already ordered Mr Duvalier twice to appear to answer the charges - once on 31 January and again on 7 February.

A judge ruled the ex-leader would be arrested if he did not turn up on Thursday.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are observing the case in the capital.

Jean-Claude Duvalier was just 19 when he inherited the title of president-for-life from his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who had ruled Haiti since 1957.

Like his father, he relied on a brutal militia known as the Tontons Macoutes to control the country.

In 1986 he was forced from power by a popular uprising and US diplomatic pressure, and went into exile in France.

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