Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste shares a small dark jail cell with 18 other men in Haiti. Their bathroom is a smelly bucket in the corner of the cell - open for all to see. When I visit him it is 96 degrees outside and much hotter inside. A prisoner who wants water or food must purchase it. There are no beds. At night they lie on the floor and try to keep the mice off. There is no water for bathing and no time outside the cell.
The priest's crime? He has been an outspoken leader of the movement calling for the return of Haiti's elected President, Jean Betrand Aristide, who was forced out of the country in a coup in February 2004.
On Wednesday, October 13, 2004, Fr. Gerard was dragged out of his rectory at St. Claire's Catholic Church in Port au Prince by masked heavily armed men. The men were dragging him and firing rifles and pistols at the crowd gathered to support their parish priest. Handcuffed, he was thrown bleeding into the back of a car and was sped away to jail, where he has been ever since.
There are no formal charges against Fr. Jean-Juste. He has not seen a judge and it is not clear he ever will. No judge will review his case because it is "too political." The police wrote down that he is jailed for "disturbing the peace." The unelected government of Haiti says he was "aiding the uprising" and that they have all the evidence they need to hold him.
This pastor joins a growing number of political prisoners in Haiti. The prime minister, the minister of the interior, the former mayor of Port au Prince, a member of parliament or two, a prominent woman folk singer and activist, are all in jail cells in Haiti. None have a date for a trial. None expect to have trials.
Since overthrowing Haiti's elected government in February 2004, the unlected government, supported by the US, has ignored Haiti's laws and constitution. Fr. Jean-Juste is but the latest prominent victim.
I met Fr. Gerard two weeks ago while visiting Haiti on a human rights mission for Pax Christi USDA, the vatholic peace movment. When I first saw him, he was in the middle of feeding 600 children their only real meal of the day. Later that evening, he told us, "Haiti has gone too far in being violent to our sisters and brothers. We must kneel down, ask forgiveness and start over." (Our report is posted at www.paxchristiusa.org).
Two weeks later, during the same Wednesday meal for 600 children, he was arrested.
But Fr. Jean-Juste is far from defeated. Through the metal bars separating us, he smiled and whispered, "Like St. Paul and St. Peter, my body is in jail, but my spirit is free!"
When I asked him what message he had for the people who support democracy in Haiti, he leaned forward, a rosary around his neck, and said without hesitation:" Insist that we return to constitutional order in Haiti. Demand freedom for all political prisoners. Respect the human rights of everyone. Pledge to respect the vote of the people. Advocate for the return of President Aristide so he can finish his electoral mandate through February 2006."
Those who care about human rights and democracy must listen to the message of the jailed priest. And we must also consider the question, "If the unlected government does this to a priest, how are they treating the regular people?"
Human rights workers in Haiti say the only way Fr. Jean-Juste is going to get justice is if the international community, especially the US, demands it.
We must listen to the message of the jailed priest. And we must advocate for justice for Fr. Jean-Juste and for all the people of Haiti.
Bill Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans School
of Law. He writes this from Port au Prince. Bill is one of the lawyers
representing Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste.