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Posted April 21, 2003
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U.S. citizen petitions human rights commission after being attacked in Haiti


By Madeline Baró Diaz, Miami Bureau

Almost three years after armed police officers barged into her home in Haiti, held her hostage, beat her and burned her, Carmel Moise Bley still awaits justice.

Moise, a U.S. citizen born in Haiti, has given up on the criminal justice system in her native country and is pinning her hopes on a petition she has filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

"It was like a movie," she says of the two-hour ordeal at her Petionville home on the morning of July 6, 2000.

In her petition, Moise said that men dressed in police uniforms barged into her bedroom, holding her cousin hostage. Demanding jewelry, drugs and $200,000, the men fired a shotgun at her bed, ripped phone lines from the wall and smashed her windows.

When Moise told them she didn't have what they were looking for, the men grabbed her maid's 7-year-old daughter, thinking she was Moise's daughter. They held a cordless drill to the child's head and threatened to perforate her skull.

Convinced by the maid's pleas that the child was not Moise's, the men left the girl alone and continued their rampage. They asked the maid for an iron so they could use it on Moise.

The woman refused. They beat her. The men ransacked the house, but only found some jewelry and $2,500. Enraged, they hit Moise with their guns, so hard that some of the guns broke.

They then tied her up and used an iron to burn her back and arm several times. Moise almost passed out from the pain and from having to smell her own burned flesh.

Moise later got medical treatment, filed a report with the Haitian police and sought help at the U.S. Embassy.

"It went nowhere," said Moise's attorney Pedro Martinez-Fraga. "All efforts in Haiti were stonewalled."

Late last year, Moise finally decided to take her case to the human rights commission, an arm of the Organization of American States. The commission is in the early stages of reviewing her petition.

If Moise's case is found to be valid, the commission or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights could determine that Haiti must compensate her or take action, such as finding those responsible and prosecuting them, said Roxanna Altholz, staff attorney for the Center for Justice and International Law in Washington, D.C.

Enforcing a judgment could be difficult, even if a country accepts the court's jurisdiction and has signed the American Convention on Human Rights, which is the basis of claims brought before the commission.

"This is like most international tribunals and bodies -- there's no police force," Altholz said. "This is enforcement through shame and political pressure."

Critics of Haiti's record on human rights say the island nation needs to be shamed.

Amnesty International, for example, has documented many human rights abuses over the past decade in Haiti.

In its 2001 report on Haiti, which covered events in 2000, Amnesty International said the "human rights situation deteriorated sharply, despite some positive steps toward accounting for past human rights violations."

The report stated that there were several reports of unlawful killings by police, mostly of criminal suspects, and cited an incident in which 25 children and men were rounded up and beaten by unofficial agents of the mayor's office in Petionville.

Moise was lucky.

When the men found Moise's passport and realized she was a U.S. citizen, they called a higher-up on a cell phone for instructions on how to proceed. They then put the cell phone to Moise's ear. She recognized the voice on the other end as that of the Petionville police chief, she says, whom she'd met a few days earlier.

The man on the phone threatened to kill her, and the officers told her to pick out a dress for her funeral because they were going to get rid of her right away.

They didn't. After determining that she had no drugs and didn't have as much money or jewelry as they thought, they blindfolded her and told her to leave the country within four hours because if she reported them they would kill her.

Moise, 47, lives in Miami-Dade County, but the life she once knew is gone.

The magazine she ran at the time of the attack folded. She doesn't go out. She sometimes visits Haiti but says she'll probably stop going after her petition becomes public knowledge.

"I tried everything in Haiti," she says. "I devoted my life to that investigation. I stopped working. You don't feel like doing anything any more."

But while Moise found safety abroad, her countrymen continue to suffer.

According to Amnesty International, instances of police abuse in Haiti worsened in 2001, with reports of mistreatment of suspected criminals during arrest and the use of excessive force in crowd control situations.

After President Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared a "zero tolerance" policy against lawbreakers, nongovernmental organizations reported an increase in killings of alleged criminal suspects, some by police officers and others by crowds carrying out "popular justice."

Justice officials in Haiti had no comment on Moise's petition.

Moise thinks her story is not unique because others in Haiti also have been the victims of police brutality. But unlike her, they are afraid to speak out because they have to remain in Haiti.

"Nobody can stop me from talking," Moise said. "They had to burn someone like me to get the word out."

But even pressure from U.S. officials hasn't brought Moise a satisfactory resolution to her case.

"The word `justice' doesn't exist in Haiti," she said.

Taking the case before an international court could force Haitian authorities to act, Altholz said.

She said her organization has gotten people out of prison, had land returned to indigenous people and obtained compensation for victims through cases brought in international court. It's easier, she admits, with countries that are politically stable. However, she said that with a country like Haiti, which has dealt with political and economic strife, it could be more difficult to get them to comply with a judgment.

Because there are hundreds of cases pending before the commission, it could take years to bring a case to fruition, Altholz said.

As such, bringing a case before the commission is really an advocacy strategy. Once the court agrees to hear a case, it's an opportunity to bring a government to court and confront it directly on abuses, massacres and other violations of human rights, Altholz said.

"It's a way to expose on the international arena that a certain violation is occurring," she said.

Madeline Baró Diaz can be reached at mbaro@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5007.

Reprinted from The Sun Sentinel of April 21, 2003

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