HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE ASSASSINATED
Note : Published in July 1987.
On the morning of July 11, the bloodied body of lawyer Lafontant Joseph, 54, director of the Center for the Promotion of Human Rights, was found hunched on the steering wheel of his car which was parked on a deserted byway off the airport road. According to the official report, he had been badly beaten, stabbed, and bore trace of a gunshot in the back. He had had an ear partly torn off, and the large amount of blood in the car indicated he had died a hard death. At a short distance from his vehicle, a bloodied wood stick was lying near a pool of blood, but no other clue was found. News of Lafontant Joseph's death sowed shock, consternation and indignation throughout the Haitian communities, at home and abroad.
Lafontant Joseph had been a staunch defender of human rights in Haiti for years. He was the founder and executive director of the Center for the Promotion of Human Rights, and up until November 22, 1987, a founding member and secretary-general of the Haitian League of Human Rights, a responsibility he had declined at the time to run for Senate in the aborted November 29 elections. His wife, Raymonde Joseph, was also involved in human rights associations, as president of the Women's League Against Torture.
In November 1980, he was arrested at the Hall of Justice while pleading in the defense of the employees union of Brasserie Nationale sued by the the management of the company. He was also known for his denounciation of judicial measures aimed at favoring some of Jean-Claude Duvalier's former cronies involved in the legal suit engaged in by the Haitian government against Duvalier. He had also taken the defense, in 1986, of small merchants and shop keepers requesting government action following the Gerard Dumont affair during which the money-changer had fled from the country with a reported $20 million put in escroll at his office by small traders.
Early this year, Lafontant Joseph had constituted himself political leader Louis Dejoie's lawyer after Dejoie's arrest trying to re-enter the country. As the lawyer of the Electricite d'Haiti (EdH) employee union, he was defending the union in the now cause célèbre of Souriac vs Le Matin, whereas EdH director Jean-Claude Souriac was suing the union and the daily newspaper Le Matin in a slander case.
In April, Lafontant Joseph innovated by organizing a training seminar for para-legal assistants. A continuous training activity, the seminar prepared volunteers to intervene in cases of human rights abuse.
On May 16, in a locality called Brache, situated near Leogane, a shooting incident involving a military having fired at a school bus and wounding students prompted Joseph into legal suit against the Government Commissionner based on the incapability of the commissionner to mobilize public powers into any action against the authors of the shooting, and on its apparent indifference toward the wave of killings experienced throughout the country. On May 26, he reiterated in a radio interview his plea for more action on the part of the government commissionner.
Then, on June 29, in his last public actions in favor of human rights, he signed for the Center for the Promotion of Human Rights a letter also signed by four other associations requesting the reinstatement of the March 29, 1987, Constitution. On that same day, he had also signed a note denouncing the actions of army adjudant Gabriel Pinasse following brutality and harassment complaints issued by the population of Thomonde, where Pinasse is posted.
Lafontant Joseph was also director of the Elliott Pierre College in Port-au-Prince, where he was a teacher for 18 years. The news of his assassination slightly disrupted the holding of the baccalaureate exams, that had started on that same morning.
Reactions were quick in coming from all sectors of the Haitian society, including trade unions, political leaders, the bar association, and human rights associations. All were unanimous in accusing the obscure forces at work to destabilize attemps at reaching a democratic state of things in Haiti. Some organizations requested that a medico-legal autopsy be conducted. The government also reacted, through a communique issued by the Ministry of Justice, and promised a thorough inquiry. Curiously enough, the Church establishment refrained from any comment on the murder.
According to relatives and friends, Joseph had received several threat calls saying he would be killed on that night and that nothing could prevent it. Radio Soleil had reported the threats and interviewed the lawyer on them. His name was also on a "macoute" hit list that had showed up in the streets on May 25. Responsibility for the drawing of the list and its distribution was never established, but the more than 80 names mentioned represent a "who's who" of human rights activists, journalists, religious figures and liberal politicians. The name of Raymonde Joseph is also on the list.
On Friday, July 15, the body was released from the morgue after an autopsy had been performed, and following a family council, it was decided to proceed swiftly with the funeral ceremony which was to take place the next morning at the Sacred Heart Church in Turgeau. The body laid in wreath at the Paret Pierre-Louis funeral home as of 1 AM on Saturday morning. The owner of the funeral home started trying to make arrangements for a church ceremony. But a Church source indicated that calls were made at Sacred Heart so the ceremony not be held there. Some reports indicated that anonymous threat calls had been received by the parish leaders, but a reliable source pointed out that the religious hierarchy had exerted pressure for the ceremony not to be held then and there for political reasons.
Ms. Raymonde Joseph, who did not want a large ceremony in any case, then decided the burial would take place without a church service. The family wanted to avoid a repetition of the Yves Volel funeral, last October, that had degenerated into a mob scene, to the point of preventing the ceremony from being held. Others expressed the fear that a large gathering of liberal politicians and human rights activists could present security risks by offering a choice target to death squads obviously still at work in the country.
As it was, only a small group of of friends and relatives followed Lafontant Joseph's coffin to the Port-au-Prince cemetery at 8 AM on Saturday morning. The family of Lafontant Joseph, along with representatives of human rights organizations nonetheless agreed for a religious ceremony to be held at Saint-Jean Bosco chapel in downtown Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, July 19.
The event, officiated by Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide and 7 other priests, was attended by a relatively small group of about 800 people. Among them, politicians, representatives of political leaders, human rights defenders, students, and members of the Joseph family. In his sermon, Father Aristide blamed the present "macoute" and Duvalierist government now at the helm of the country, and the American imperialists that support it.
Interviewed after the ceremony, Jean-Claude Bajeux of the Oecumenical Council on Human Rights indicated that Lafontant Joseph was probably killed because of his efforts to pursue the case against Duvalierists that allegedly stole funds from the Haitian state during the Duvalier years, and discarded the hypothesis of a common criminal act saying "this is a political murder." Asked whether the victim had been killed by "macoutes," Duvalierists, or the Army, he stated "They are all the same thing."
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