Faced with growing outrage over an alleged sexual assault by UN occupation soldiers on 18-year-old Johnny Jean in the southern town of Port Salut, the UN is pledging to investigate the incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.
But this promise is belied by the UN mission’s refusal to cooperate with the Haitian justice system’s attempt to investigate the hanging death of a 16-year-old boy inside another UN base one year ago.
Gérard Jean-Gilles ran errands for Nepalese soldiers at their base in Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city. A Haitian interpreter for the troops, Joëlle Rozéfort, accused Jean-Gilles of stealing $200 from her car. The next day, on Aug. 18, 2010, Jean-Gilles was found hanging from a tree inside the base, a wire around his neck.
The UN Stabilization Mission to Haiti (MINUSTAH) said its internal inquiry found that Jean-Gilles committed suicide. But Jean-Gilles’ family and friends suspect he was murdered, and when a Haitian judge tried to investigate, the UN stone-walled.
The former delegate (or central government representative) of Haiti’s northern region calls the UN “the primary obstacle” to learning how Jean-Gilles died.
In impassioned demonstrations against MINUSTAH this week, Haitians are calling for justice for Gérard Jean-Gilles, too.
“He died searching for a way to live,” said his adoptive father, Rémy Raphaël, whose street merchant wife took in Jean-Gilles as a baby, after his mother died and father went missing.
“He was in school, but my wife couldn’t keep paying for it,” said Raphaël, in the family’s sparse two-room home in a narrow, grimy alleyway. “He never tried to make trouble with people because he understood his situation, he preferred to search for jobs… That’s why he became friends with the soldiers.”
Evens Bele, 17, worked alongside Jean-Gilles on the MINUSTAH base for three years. They earned the equivalent of $10 a month, running errands, cleaning base facilities, and translating for the UN troops during patrols.
“He entered, said hello to me, and told me he had trouble with a lady who lost around $200,” said Bele of the fateful morning. Not long after, “I saw him hung up.”
UN personnel immediately met with the family and local officials. The body was flown to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, the same day. But it sat for three days until Haitian doctors carried out an autopsy at the General Hospital, according to Calixte James, Jean-Gilles’ uncle, who accompanied the body.
“They could have done the autopsy the same day because we arrived in Port-au-Prince at 3:45 p.m.,” said James, a heavyset Blackberry-toting lawyer. “In our country, we don’t have the equipment that can detect things in [an autopsy on] a body after 72 hours. So to me what they were doing was already meaningless.”
An autopsy report obtained by Haiti Liberte said no traces of violence were found on the corpse, which the UN uses to buttress its claim of suicide.
But Raphaël, who worked as a dishwasher in the base, believes the UN soldiers “asphyxiated [his son] with gas and then hung him from the tree,” which was “in a restricted spot of the yard behind a lot of containers.”
“He could have fought them because he was strong enough,” Raphaël said, his voice rising. “He wouldn’t let them do that to him. . .To me the autopsy is not clear enough.”
The suspicions of Jean-Gilles’ family and friends swirl around interpreter Joëlle Rozéfort, who had accused Jean-Gilles of stealing money from her car the previous day.
The morning of the boy’s death, “Joëlle came to me while I was washing dishes, saying Gérard shouldn’t have stolen money from her,” Raphaël said. “While she was talking, a soldier came in and told me Gérard had hung himself! Her face stayed quiet… Even when Rozéfort found the money in her trunk, she kept on saying that Gérard was a thief.”
Bele also doesn’t believe Jean-Gilles committed suicide. “He’s dead because of the money,” he said. Shortly after the hanging, Bele and Raphaël both lost their jobs at the base.
The northern region’s former Government Delegate, Georgemain Prophète, represented the Haitian state in its initial dealings with the UN on how to probe Jean-Gilles’ death. They agreed the Haitian judiciary would open an investigation, he said.
The case was given to Heidi Fortuné, a Cap Haïtien investigating judge (juge d’instruction) since 2006.
“The autopsy can only show whether or not he was strangled, but it can’t determine if it was a suicide or if someone else hung him,” said Fortuné. “They sent me the case to investigate if it was a suicide or not – that’s my job.”
Witnesses said that Rozéfort “had a little trouble with her car and Gérard gave her some help,” Fortuné said. “After she started the car and left she realized the money in her bag was missing. She accused and made threatening remarks to Gérard, but Gérard said that he did not take the money. Rozefort promised him she’d report her allegation to the chief of the base,” he said.
Both Bele and Raphaël claimed in separate interviews that Rozéfort had a sexual relationship with the Nepalese chief of the base.
One witness who had seen Jean-Gilles enter the base that morning told Fortuné the boy had displayed no facial expressions or signs suggesting he would kill himself. Suicide is not considered part of Haitian culture and is practically unheard of in the island nation.
“So the next person I need to hear from is Rozéfort herself,” the judge explained.
Fortuné said he issued three separate subpoenas for Rozéfort to testify before him, the last of which mandated the police to arrest her and bring her to him. But MINUSTAH moved her to Port-au-Prince, saying she’d received death threats in Cap Haïtien.
Rozéfort never testified.
After issuing his warrants, Fortuné received a letter dated Sep. 16, 2010 and signed by Edmond Mulet, the former Guatemalan diplomat who headed MINUSTAH at the time. The letter was addressed to Haiti’s Foreign Minister, who sent it to Judge Fortuné.
“It is mentioned in the subpoena that Madame Rozéfort is suspected of complicity in voluntary homicide,” Mulet wrote. “Mme Rozéfort will not be able to comply with the subpoena. . . barring a decision by the UN Secretary lifting her immunity.”
The Status of Forces of Agreement (SOFA) between the Haitian government and the UN provides MINUSTAH members with immunity from prosecution in Haiti under certain circumstances.
But Haiti’s then-Justice Minister, Paul Denis, responded to Mulet in a sharply-worded letter arguing that Rozéfort enjoys no immunity whatsoever.
“I believe it timely to ask you, Mr. Special Representative, to accord one minute of reflection on the definition of the expressions members of the MINUSTAH and contracting parties,” Denis wrote, bolding and underlining portions of the text for emphasis. The SOFA does not provide immunity for the UN’s Haitian contractors. “It seems to me that Madame Joëlle Rozéfort, of Haitian nationality, recruited here, translator by profession, is certainly a contracting party and not a member of MINUSTAH.”
Denis emphasized that the SOFA provides immunity for acts carried out by MINUSTAH personnel in the “exercise of their official functions”. Therefore, “The official and contractual function of Madame Rozéfort consists of translating statements, conversations and documents from one language to another. . . In acting as a translator, Madame Rozéfort cannot in any way be led to kill.”
In an Oct. 8, 2010 letter to Denis, Mulet shot back: “Madame Rozéfort was recruited by means of a letter of nomination issued by the United Nations Secretariat. . . [H]er employment will be governed by the terms of her nominating letter and the Regulations of United Nations personnel. She is consequently an official of the United Nations.”
Mulet did not respond to Denis’ second point, that immunity is only applicable in the exercise of “official functions.” Mulet concluded, “the Secretary General [Ban Ki-Moon] and the Special Representative of the Secretary General [Mulet] are for the moment… not in a position to come to a decision on the request for a court appearance based on a suspicion of complicity in voluntary homicide.”
“Immunities should not be used as a shield to prohibit investigations into potential criminal acts that, if proven, would be clearly outside of the ‘official capacity’ of UN staff members,” wrote Scott Sheeran, an expert on peacekeeping law at the University of Essex who has worked in the United Nations, in an email toHaïti Liberté after viewing the exchange of letters.
“This is particularly so where the UN has not assisted the host government and local law enforcement to reach a view on what occurred,” Sheeran wrote. “It is not a good faith interpretation of the law, and, more broadly, it is not consistent with the rule of law and human rights which the UN is meant to uphold.” Mulet appeared to be claiming an “overly broad interpretation” of a key aspect of the SOFA, he added.
That same month, Mulet argued in a speech to international partners that Haiti’s principal problem is “the absence of the rule of law.” He said Haitians have ceased to expect or demand justice from the Haitian state and that the country suffers from a dearth of competent legal professionals. His role, along with that of the international community, Mulet added, is “not to undermine Haitian sovereignty, but strengthen it. I am very conscious of this.”
Edmond Mulet is now Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations at UN headquarters in New York. A year later, he “doesn’t feel that there was a denial of justice” in the Jean-Gilles case, according to Michel Bonnardeaux, a public affairs officer from the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Former Justice Minister Denis could not be reached for comment.
“I received the copy of a letter signed by Edmond Mulet saying the madam has immunity,” Judge Fortuné said. “But I know she’s a Haitian contractor and only the UN soldiers have immunity. How can Rozéfort be enjoying this privilege as a local employee?”
Fortuné asked: “Did she complain to the chief or say something that could give a occasion to Jean-Gilles’ death?. . . I can’t say with conviction whether or not he was killed by the soldiers, but they don’t cooperate enough to help with the investigation – that’s what is bizarre.”
Judge Fortuné concluded, his voice hushed with disappointment: “The UN is blocking the Haitian justice system.”
Gilles’ family is indignant and angry. “MINUSTAH doesn’t respect the Haitian justice system,” Raphaël said. “They think they are the only force on the planet and they can do whatever they want. . .They’ve only brought us corruption. They are doing nothing good for the country.”
“We don’t have any justice because our leaders have sold out the country to foreigners,” said Calixte James, the uncle. “How can a judge call the woman to testify, and the UN refuses, saying she has immunity. She’s Haitian!. . . Gérard’s family is asking the whole world judge these things that MINUSTAH is doing in Haiti.”
Jimmy Jean, 18, lived with Gérard. “I want them to give him justice,” he said. “At night with some friends he used to sit with me joking until we went inside to go to bed. I cried. I cried a lot – he was my only brother so what’s wrong with it!”
Last October, protestors in Cap Haïtien fought pitched street battles – using rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails – with MINUSTAH troops, turning the town into a veritable warzone. Judge Fortuné said he was forced to round up his kids and dash out of his home when it was flooded with tear gas. The protesters blamed the Nepali UN troops (correctly, as scientific studies would later prove) for introducing cholera into Haiti. The resulting epidemic has now killed over 6,100 Haitians.
“MINUSTAH’s refusal to deliver the justice [in Jean-Gilles’ case] that the people demand, and the fact that a MINUSTAH battalion is pointed to as the source of the [cholera] epidemic,” said former delegate Prophète, “when you put all that together, it’s a very toxic compound and that can make anything happen.”
James and Judge Fortuné confirmed by phone this week that nothing has changed in the Jean-Gilles case since last year. They said the investigation could not progress without Rozéfort’s participation.
“I am absolutely not aware of the existence of such a letter which was sent to the judge,” said UN spokeswoman Sylvie van de Wildenberg to this journalist last fall when pressed for information about the case. “You know this is crazy, I don’t know why you are digging into it. Why are you in Haiti – are you here to help?”
Incensed by the news from Port Salut, demonstrators again descended on the area around the capital’s National Palace this week to call for MINUSTAH’s departure. Some held signs saying, “Justice for Gerard Jean-Gilles.” Police responded with tear gas which sent demonstrators and quake survivors running for cover around the makeshift tent camps that crowd the plaza.
The UN Security Council looks set to renew MINUSTAH’s mandate for at least another year before it expires on Oct. 15. While talk of a drawdown in troops is growing, UN officials say the force is likely to stay in Haiti until 2015.
“Let’s be serious,” James said. “The UN says that the judges are not efficient and the justice system should be reformed, while they block us from doing our job! I hope MINUSTAH doesn’t consider all Haitian to be idiots. To keep their positions, some Haitians are selling out the country and signing treaties in the name of Haitian people, but not all the Haitians are the same.”