- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — On Dec. 1, with the U.N. peacekeeping force here was preoccupied with the heavy gunfire erupting around the national pal-

ace as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Haitian President Boniface Alexandre, the smoke billowing from the national penitentiary a few blocks away drew scant attention.

Prisoners in a three-story cellblock called “the Titanic” had rioted, broke free from their cells, set fire to mattresses and brandished lengths of water pipe as weapons. Guards called in a special police unit that helped quell the riot. Police officials said seven prisoners were killed and more than 40 detainees and several guards were wounded.

But prisoners and other witnesses said the government is concealing a bloodbath in which police and guards killed dozens of the rioters.

Irrespective of whether these unofficial casualty figures prove true, the killings at the penitentiary represent another black mark for Haiti’s interim government, which has been accused of perpetrating and tolerating a gamut of human rights abuses since seizing power in March after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster.

Amnesty International has denounced arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions and summary executions that witnesses say have been carried out by the national police.

“I saw everything,” said Ted Nazaire, 24, a prisoner on the first floor of the Titanic who was released two days after the riot and is in hiding.

“It was a massacre. More than 60 were killed,” he said, adding that police opened fire on the inmates, then went from cell to cell, forcing prisoners into a passageway and methodically executing them.

Nazaire said he witnessed the executions while hiding under a staircase.

When he was found later, he said, he was beaten viciously by prison guards.

Nazaire said the warden and another prison official warned him not to talk about what he had seen, reminding him that they know where he lives.

Members of his family complain that police harass them in their home nearly every day while hunting for Nazaire, who now walks with a limp, is covered with lesions, and has a swollen left eye and a huge bump on his forehead.

Although penitentiary officials refuse requests to enter the national facility, Chief Prosecutor Jean Pierre Audain gave this reporter special authorization to visit Dec. 15.

During the visit, which lasted about an hour before guards cut it short, estimates given by prisoners about the number killed ranged from 40 to 110. All the inmates rejected the much lower official figures.

“It’s not true,” said Frantz Rubin, a prisoner whose cell has a view into the passageway where prisoners say many of the killings took place. “I saw more than 30 dead people with my own eyes,” he said. “We all want justice.”

Prisoners crowded around this reporter and said he was the first allowed to visit them. They pointed at dozens of bullet holes and what appeared to be dried blood on concrete walls. Some hurriedly handed over shell casings of .38-caliber and 9 mm bullets, and the smashed projectiles.

In the Titanic, where more than 30 prisoners are packed in each bare cell reeking of urine, prisoners offered scraps of paper through the bars with descriptions of the killings, lists of the names of the dead and of guards accused of brutality, pleas for help and a poem of mourning with drawings of coffins.

More than a dozen took off their shirts and pulled down their shorts to reveal wounds from beatings and gunfire, many with the bullets still lodged inside their bodies.

Prisoner Richard Similien, 33, said he carted out bodies from the Titanic to another part of the prison in a wheelbarrow normally used to transport cauldrons of rice and beans.

Warden Sony Marcellus dismissed the accusations by Nazaire and the other prisoners as lies and exaggerations.

“The prisoners will never tell the truth,” Warden Marcellus said. The guards are “trained to shoot in the air, not at prisoners. They would never fire on prisoners in this way.” He showed an affidavit signed by a justice of the peace who had seen only seven bodies at the penitentiary on Dec. 1 night.

But Nazaire and the other prisoners are not alone in their testimony. One human rights group and a lawyer representing prisoners at the penitentiary said prison guards requesting anonymity confirmed that the official death toll is an underestimate.

An ambulance driver who asked that his name not be published said he transported more than 30 bodies in a Toyota Land Cruiser in three trips from the penitentiary to a dump site outside the city. He said two other vehicles there also were transporting bodies. He said he would not show reporters the site because he feared for his life and for his family.

People who live and work in the streets that surround the penitentiary said they heard heavy continuous gunfire lasting two to three hours. A neighbor and a reporter at a nearby radio station, both with views of a catwalk that runs along the outer walls of the penitentiary, said they saw black-clad police officers with machine guns firing down into the penitentiary and at the cellblocks.

Still, evidence that more than seven persons were killed at the penitentiary on Dec. 1 is based entirely on reports from prisoners and anonymous sources.

Mr. Audain said he has ordered an investigation of the riot and its aftermath, but its scope and details are not clear. Meanwhile, the penitentiary and its prisoners remain shrouded in secrecy.

Since the Dec. 1 events, the penitentiary authorities have refused visits by reporters, human rights observers and lawyers or relatives of prisoners, all of whom previously were allowed to enter the facility on a regular basis. At the Port-au-Prince general hospital last week, three prison guards in plain clothes stood over a wounded prisoner whose leg was handcuffed to a cot, preventing anyone from speaking to him.

“It’s a total blackout,” said Renan Hedouville, head of the Lawyers’ Committee for the Respect of Individual Liberties, a group that had criticized purported abuses by the Aristide government.

“Something shady seems to be going on here. It’s as if they don’t want people to know what happened,” Mr. Hedouville said, adding that though prison riots had taken place under Mr. Aristide, penitentiary visits had not been prohibited for so long.

Warden Marcellus said visits were curtailed for safety reasons, and that family members have been allowed to visit relatives since Dec. 13.

But outside the penitentiary on Dec. 16, about 30 women waiting in the shade of the building said they still had not seen their husbands and sons. Some have received written messages or assurances from guards that the relatives are safe, but many family members are left to guess.

“I have my son inside. Yonel Pierre,” said a frail white-haired woman as she waited in line to drop off a plate of rice and beans. “Since Dec. 1, I’ve brought food for my son, but I haven’t received any news from him.

“Before, I used to get back the dirty dishes, but now I don’t get anything,” she said. Her visits may be in vain. Among the seven confirmed dead is a prisoner named Yanel Pierre, a difference in spelling that means little in a nation where the adult literacy rate is about 50 percent.

Police spokeswoman Gessy Coicou said the latest official death toll is 10, because three prisoners wounded in the riot have died. This list has not been made public, and the guards have not told Mrs. Pierre whether her son, who was in a cell on the second floor of the penitentiary, is alive.

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