State Department to Review Haitian Refugee Claims of Persecution
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The State Department said Wednesday it has intensified efforts to investigate claims by Haitian refugees that they were persecuted after being returned to their homeland by the U.S. Coast Guard.
By cable, the State Department ordered the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince to ″devote all available personnel and other resources to monitoring the post-repatriation of returnees″ who had fled to the United States in the wake of the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last fall.
In an interview with The Washington Post published Wednesday, Aristide was quoted as saying Haitians were being arrested, beaten and tortured because of the U.S. repatriation policy, which he denounced as ″discrimination.″
Aristide, interviewed from his exile in Caracas, Venezuela, also accused some members of the Bush administration of abandoning the fight against Haiti’s military-controlled government by easing economic sanctions.
Last week, the administration eased its trade embargo by authorizing Haiti’s assembly plants to resume exports to the United States.
The State Department’s chief Latin American official defended the embargo decision Wednesday night. Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson said in a speech at Georgetown University that the move was intended to ease suffering by putting thousands of Haitians back to work.
The United States and other members of the 34-nation Organization of American States slapped a hemisphere-wide trade embargo on Haiti to pressure the interim government into negotiating Aristide’s return to power.
In Port-au-Prince, the House of Deputies halted debate on reinstating the activist Roman Catholic priest as president after a pro-Aristide lawmaker said he was attacked by gunmen on a downtown street.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard returned another 507 Haitians from the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The State Department’s cable was sent amid growing criticism by human rights groups that the administration has ignored credible claims of persecution, as related to U.S. immigration authorities and U.N. officials.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said Wednesday the administration has ″relinquished its moral leadership″ in the Haitian crisis, and called for the United Nations to step in to restore Aristide to power.
The order ″raises serious questions about whether there has been adequate investigations of prior complaints,″ said Arthur Helton, director of the refugee project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
It amounts to ″an implicit admission both for the need for a proper investigation and a failure to undertake one up to this point,″ Helton said.
Human rights activists and U.N. officials note that 41 Haitians who have fled their country twice since the Sept. 30 military coup old immigration authorities of persecution or harassment after their first repatriation.
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials who interviewed the 41 Haitians at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, allowed them to travel to this country to apply for political asylum, U.S. officials say.
On Monday, lawyers for Haitian refugees accused the Bush administration of withholding information that repatriated Haitians had been ″tortured, killed or persecuted″ from the Supreme Court before it lifted an injunction against the forced returns.
The high court has given the administration until 3 p.m. Friday to respond to the lawyers’ emergency request to reinstate the injunction against repatriation.
The State Department, which says it does not have documented evidence of persecution, said it checked out the allegations of four refugees but couldn’t substantiate them.
Last weekend, it sent seven officials plus two immigration agents to the U.S. Embassy to process refugee applications and help diplomats investigate complaints of persecution, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
″We’re trying to get all the information we can, we do want to look into them,″ said the U.S. official.
The cable sent Wednesday ordered the embassy to ″develop a monitoring plan″ to make spot checks ″on the well-being of randomly selected returnees″ and to ″direct first-hand investigations into specific allegations of mistreatment.″
The department told the embassy that it should seek the assistance of the Red Cross, which has agreed to help investigate the reports, and the Organization of American States ″whose role we are helping attempt to secure.″
On Wednesday, the 507 refugees arrived in Port-au-Prince aboard two Coast Guard cutters and were met by Haitian immigration authorities, given $15 for bus fare home and a food-aid card by Red Cross officials.
On Monday, 510 boat people were returned, while last week 1,089 were returned from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
U.S. Coast Guard cutters have intercepted more than 15,000 Haitians in frail boats bound for South Florida since the coup.
Nearly 4,000 have been found to have plausible grounds for requesting political asylum.