- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — President-elect Rene Preval said yesterday that the constitution permits the return of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was forced to flee into exile during a violent rebellion two years ago.

Mr. Preval, a former protege of Mr. Aristide who shares the ousted leader’s strong support among the poor, said the former president has a legal right to return to the volatile Caribbean nation.

“My position is simple on President Aristide and any other citizen who wants to come to Haiti,” Mr. Preval said in his first press conference since being declared winner of the Feb. 7 election. “Article 41 of the Haitian Constitution says that no Haitian needs a visa to enter or leave the country.”

In South Africa, Mr. Aristide said yesterday that he was ready to end what he called an unconstitutional exile, but the timing of his return was up to Mr. Preval.

The United States and other countries have warned that the return of Mr. Aristide could further destabilize Haiti.

When asked by reporters, Mr. Preval declined to discuss Mr. Aristide’s potential return in detail.

“Remember, you’re talking to a president,” he said at the modern, gated home of his sister in the hills east of the capital, Port-au-Prince. “Do you respect the constitution? The response isn’t with me. It’s with the constitution.”

Mr. Aristide said during an interview with international news agencies yesterday that he expected to hear soon when he could return home.

“The date of my return will emerge from consultations” among Mr. Preval, the United Nations, the Caribbean Community and his host, the South African government, he said.

When asked whether he had spoken to Mr. Preval, Mr. Aristide said, “It’s a private issue.”

Mr. Preval, an agronomist who served as president from 1996 to 2001, was declared the winner of this month’s election after electoral authorities divided 85,000 blank votes among the candidates to avoid a runoff.

The move gave Mr. Preval 51 percent of the vote needed for an outright victory, drawing complaints from his two closest rivals, neither of whom polled close to Mr. Preval’s numbers.

Group 184, a coalition of business leaders and activists instrumental in the ouster of Mr. Aristide, have called Mr. Preval’s election unconstitutional.

The president-elect brushed aside the criticism in his press conference.

“We clearly have a winner in the first round of the presidential vote,” he said. “Most competitors accepted this result, although there are some critics. It is normal.”

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