- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

PRETORIA, South Africa — Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed president of Haiti, remains hunkered down behind tight security in South Africa as his nation prepares to vote for the first time since he fled the country almost 21 months ago.

His Lavalas Family party remains a major political force in Haiti and could emerge as kingmaker, but if the ousted leader is sending directions, he is doing so in deep secrecy.

Since arriving in South Africa in May 2004, Mr. Aristide has been protected in a secure residence with around-the-clock protection by an elite South African police unit and enjoys privileges usually reserved for Cabinet ministers and top officials.

Repeated requests for an interview were made over a period of a week and written questions were submitted through the South African government, and directly through his assistant at the University of South Africa, where he and his wife, Mildred, have been appointed “honorary research fellows.”

No response was received.

The reticence may stem in part from legal maneuvers by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of Florida, which has obtained drug-related convictions of top former police officials who served under Mr. Aristide.

Newsweek, in its Oct. 24 international edition, quoted the U.S. attorney’s office as saying it will “continue to pursue” these cases. The office has not said whether Mr. Aristide is a target of the investigations. South African officials say they have “taken note” of persistent press reports that Mr. Aristide may be indicted.

These officials decline to comment further on a situation that has the potential to embarrass President Thabo Mbeki, who led his country’s effort last year to provide asylum for Mr. Aristide, who fled Haiti after an armed uprising in February 2004, shortly after celebrations marking 200 years of Haiti’s independence from France.

Most countries, including the United States, shunned the event. At the time, Haiti had become a major transshipment point for South American cocaine heading for the United States.

Mr. Mbeki, however, flew to Port-au-Prince, where he gave a speech in support of his host at the Haitian anniversary. A few weeks later, Mr. Aristide fled first to the Central African Republic and then to Pretoria.

Earlier this month, the Haitian government filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court in Miami, accusing Mr. Aristide of stealing millions of dollars from Haiti’s treasury. The 74-page lawsuit says Mr. Aristide and eight co-defendants broke U.S. law with wire transfers made with stolen money from the Haitian treasury and Haiti Teleco, the state-owned telephone company.

Mr. Aristide’s attorney, Ira Kurzban, told the Associated Press that the lawsuit is baseless. “The lawsuit is based on a fraudulent report issued by the unelected officials who are temporarily running the Haitian government and has no credibility.”

Mr. Aristide was elected in 1990 and deposed in a coup eight months later. With support from the United States, he returned to office in 1994 but soon lost credibility at home and abroad amid growing political violence and charges of vote rigging.

The South African government has made clear that it hopes the exile will be temporary. In May, the ruling African National Congress called for “the organization of free, peaceful and fair democratic elections” in Haiti and the “creation of conditions for the return of all exiles, including President Aristide.”

Since Mr. Aristide’s departure, an interim government has ruled Haiti under U.N. supervision. Presidential elections, originally scheduled for Nov. 13, have been postponed twice. The latest election date, announced last week, is Dec. 17. The Electoral Council, which is charged with organizing the vote, said Monday it has not approved the schedule.

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