Haiti's ex-ruler 'Baby Doc' Duvalier attends court

Jean-Claude Duvalier in court, 28 February Jean-Claude Duvalier denied responsibility for crimes carried out under his 15-year rule

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Haiti's former ruler Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has appeared in court for a hearing to determine if he can be charged with crimes against humanity.

At the hearing he denied responsibility for abuses carried out during his time as president, between 1971 and 1986.

Human rights groups say hundreds of political prisoners were tortured or killed under his rule.

He returned to Haiti in 2011 after spending 25 years in exile in France.

Opponents and supporters of Mr Duvalier turned out for the hearing, with some of his alleged victims just metres away from him in the packed courtroom.

It was the first time he had faced them, having failed to attend previous hearings.

Supporters dressed in the black and red colours symbolic of Mr Duvalier's rule chanted "Long live Duvalier" as he entered the courthouse.

Mr Duvalier's lawyers had asked for the session to be held in private, arguing he was unwell.

The hearing was requested by his alleged victims, who want to see him stand trial for crimes against humanity.

Analysis

When he entered the packed courtroom, it was as if a myth had been shattered. Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, "president for life", was surely one of the untouchables. But there he was - just a slight, ordinary-looking man in a dark business suit.

A group of his alleged victims sat just a few metres away. For some, it was the first time they had seen him in the flesh.

The purpose of the hearing, in the Port au Prince Court of Appeal, was to determine whether Mr Duvalier should stand trial for crimes against humanity.

A group of human rights lawyers - sharp Haitian attorneys, backed by better-resourced colleagues from abroad - say that of course he should. Baby Doc's own legal representatives, and his supporters - some of whom demonstrated outside the courtroom - said a former head of state should not suffer such indignity. But today these arguments seemed to be small details.

The really astonishing thing was that Mr Duvalier was in the same court of law as some of his alleged victims. History was being made.

'President for life'

Last year, a judge ruled that Mr Duvalier should be tried for embezzling public funds but that the statute of limitations had run out on charges of murder, arbitrary arrest, torture and disappearances.

That ruling is contested by human rights organisations, which argue that under international law there is no time limit on prosecuting crimes against humanity.

Mr Duvalier is himself appealing against the decision to try him on any charges.

At the hearing, he claimed to have had limited power over individual government officials who "had their own authority".

Now a three-judge panel must decide whether the former leader should face trial.

Three previous attempts to hold the hearing had to be postponed when Mr Duvalier failed to turn up.

Mr 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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