- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2011

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide will leave exile in South Africa in just a few hours, despite President Obama’s bid to keep the hugely popular but controversial figure away from his homeland until it holds a presidential election this weekend, officials said Thursday.

“We can’t hold him hostage if he wants to go,” South African Cabinet Minister Collins Chabane said, noting Haiti’s government had delivered Mr. Aristide’s diplomatic passport last month.

Mr. Aristide‘s lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said Mr. Aristide will be back in Haiti by noon on Friday. The one-sentence statement was released Thursday and gave no further details.

South African officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make the official announcement, said Mr. Aristide would leave immediately after addressing reporters around 9 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT) Thursday at Johannesburg’s second international airport on the city’s northern outskirts.

About a dozen massive suitcases marked “Aristide” arrived at the airport Friday night, followed by Danny Glover, the actor and social justice activist who arrived Thursday morning to help escort Mr. Aristide; his wife, Mildred; and their two daughters home.

“President Aristide … will soon be on the plane to go home back to Haiti,” Mr. Glover said before walking into the airport’s VIP area.

Mr. Aristide, a former slum priest, twice was president of Haiti and remains wildly popular among the Caribbean nation’s majority poor. He was unable to serve full terms, having been ousted the first time in a coup before being restored to power in a U.S. military intervention in 1994. After handing power to his successor, he was re-elected years later, only to flee a rebellion in 2004 aboard a U.S. plane. Mr. Aristide claimed he was kidnapped, a charge the United States denied.

Mr. Obama was concerned enough about the timing of Mr. Aristide’s return to call South African President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday and discuss the matter, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Associated Press. A Zuma spokesman had no comment, saying he was unaware of the call.

“The United States, along with others in the international community, has deep concerns that President Aristide’s return to Haiti in the closing days of the election could be destabilizing,” Mr. Vietor said. “President Obama reiterated … his belief that the Haitian people deserve the chance to choose their government through peaceful, free and fair elections March 20.”

Aides said Mr. Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, fears the winner might reverse the long-awaited decision to allow his return. In the past, both candidates have been opposed to Mr. Aristide. Now, both Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat stress his right to return as a Haitian citizen under the constitution.

Mrs. Manigat, a university administrator and former first lady, even said, “President Aristide is welcome to come back and help me with education.”

Mr. Glover, the chair of the TransAfrica social justice forum, asked why former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier could return to Haiti unhindered and not Mr. Aristide.

“People of good conscience cannot be idle while a former dictator is able to return unhindered while a democratic leader who peacefully handed over power to another elected president is restricted from returning to his country by external forces,” Mr. Glover wrote on the TransAfrica Forum website.

Prominent lawyers and law professors criticized U.S. government “interference” in Mr. Aristide’s “constitutional and human right to return from forced exile to Haiti.”

“The United States trying to control when any Haitian citizen — especially a former president — can enter Haiti is outrageous,” Bill Quigley, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights at Loyola New Orleans Law School, said. He is among more than 100 lawyers from the United States, Europe and Canada who wrote a letter of criticism to the U.S. State Department.

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