Doubts About Haiti Police Increase Worries About Transition
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Claims that Haiti’s newly trained police are incompetent and use excessive force have people worried about whether the officers can maintain order after U.N. peacekeepers withdraw.
Instead of calming the fears, the appointment of Lt. Col. Jean-Marie Fourel Celestin as national police chief on Thursday reinforced them.
An ally of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a former medical officer in Haiti’s hated and disbanded army, Celestin had been head of security at the presidential palace. Radio stations reported he is married to a relative of the president.
Port-au-Prince’s new mayor, left-wing folk singer Emmanuel Charlemagne, declared he would not cooperate with Celestin, saying he was not ``the right man for the job.″ Charlemagne did not give his reasons.
Two independent American groups that monitor Haiti said U.S. officials were dismayed by the appointment, which Aristide made just 2 1/2 weeks before the Dec. 17 election to choose his successor.
An effective police force is seen as key to a successful transition of power and a peaceful end to the U.S.-led intervention that the Clinton administration counts among its greatest foreign policy successes.
Yet expectations for a smooth transition have been dashed by Aristide’s own ambivalence about stepping down and reports of a rift between the president and his heir-apparent, former Premier Rene Preval.
The presidential race officially began two weeks ago, but there has been virtually no campaigning, except for a few radio interviews and some pro-Preval banners strung across streets.
Instead of using the election to renew hope, Aristide has confused people by sending conflicting messages about whether he will step down.
Many Haitians demand that Aristide be allowed to serve another three years to make up for those he lost in exile after the army ousted him in September 1991. A U.S.-led military force restored him to power Oct. 15, 1994.
Aristide’s five-year term ends Feb. 7, when a new president is scheduled to be inaugurated and U.N. troops are supposed to withdraw.
Adding to the uncertainty is a renewed surge of refugees fleeing Haiti. This past week, the U.S. Coast Guard returned more than 1,000 boat people, more than in the last 10 months combined.
The police force, which is planned to number 5,000 at the end of February, will have to keep the peace after U.N. troops withdraw. So far, they have enjoyed little success.
``The national police has at times got out of hand,″ said Victor Benoit, Preval’s only real competition in the election. ``The heated-up atmosphere and political tension of recent weeks hasn’t facilitated the task for these young rookies. It’s hard for them not to get jumpy.″
Three recent examples show the problems:
_On Wednesday, in the southern port of Miragoane, police shot and killed one person and seriously wounded three in a clash with demonstrators calling for improved public-utility services, local radio reported. Police opened fire when one officer was struck in the back by a rock.
_On Nov. 23, a 6-year-old girl was fatally shot at a bus stop in Cite Soleil, a seaside slum in the capital. Reports that a policeman accidentally shot her while fighting with a bus driver sparked a riot. The policeman has since been suspended pending an investigation.
_On Nov. 11, when Aristide ordered a nationwide disarmament, police barged into homes without search warrants and raided homes at night in violation of the constitution.
``The leadership of the national police force is crucial,″ said U.S. Embassy spokesman Stan Schrager. ``We believe that with additional training and experience, the Haitian national police will turn into an effective security unit.″
But time is running out, and Haitians harbor bitter memories about when the police force was part of the army.
In three years of military terror after Aristide’s ouster, soldiers and their henchmen killed as many as 4,000 civilians and tortured countless others.
``The people still identify the army with the police,″ said Francois Severin, formerly agriculture minister under Aristide.