Faced with growing outrage over an alleged sexual assault by UN occupation soldiers on 18-year-old Johnny Jean in the southern town of Port Salut, the UN is pledging to investigate the incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.
But this promise is belied by the UN mission’s refusal to cooperate with the Haitian justice system’s attempt to investigate the hanging death of a 16-year-old boy inside another UN base one year ago.
Gérard Jean-Gilles ran errands for Nepalese soldiers at their base in Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city. A Haitian interpreter for the troops, Joëlle Rozéfort, accused Jean-Gilles of stealing $200 from her car. The next day, on Aug. 18, 2010, Jean-Gilles was found hanging from a tree inside the base, a wire around his neck.
The UN Stabilization Mission to Haiti (MINUSTAH) said its internal inquiry found that Jean-Gilles committed suicide. But Jean-Gilles’ family and friends suspect he was murdered, and when a Haitian judge tried to investigate, the UN stone-walled.
The former delegate (or central government representative) of Haiti’s northern region calls the UN “the primary obstacle” to learning how Jean-Gilles died.
In impassioned demonstrations against MINUSTAH this week, Haitians are calling for justice for Gérard Jean-Gilles, too.
“He died searching for a way to live,” said his adoptive father, Rémy Raphaël, whose street merchant wife took in Jean-Gilles as a baby, after his mother died and father went missing.
“He was in school, but my wife couldn’t keep paying for it,” said Raphaël, in the family’s sparse two-room home in a narrow, grimy alleyway. “He never tried to make trouble with people because he understood his situation, he preferred to search for jobs… That’s why he became friends with the soldiers.”
Evens Bele, 17, worked alongside Jean-Gilles on the MINUSTAH base for three years. They earned the equivalent of $10 a month, running errands, cleaning base facilities, and translating for the UN troops during patrols.
“He entered, said hello to me, and told me he had trouble with a lady who lost around $200,” said Bele of the fateful morning. Not long after, “I saw him hung up.”
UN personnel immediately met with the family and local officials. The body was flown to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, the same day. But it sat for three days until Haitian doctors carried out an autopsy at the General Hospital, according to Calixte James, Jean-Gilles’ uncle, who accompanied the body.
“They could have done the autopsy the same day because we arrived in Port-au-Prince at 3:45 p.m.,” said James, a heavyset Blackberry-toting lawyer. “In our country, we don’t have the equipment that can detect things in [an autopsy on] a body after 72 hours. So to me what they were doing was already meaningless.”
An autopsy report obtained by Haiti Liberte said no traces of violence were found on the corpse, which the UN uses to buttress its claim of suicide.
But Raphaël, who worked as a dishwasher in the base, believes the UN soldiers “asphyxiated [his son] with gas and then hung him from the tree,” which was “in a restricted spot of the yard behind a lot of containers.”
“He could have fought them because he was strong enough,” Raphaël said, his voice rising. “He wouldn’t let them do that to him. . .To me the autopsy is not clear enough.”
The suspicions of Jean-Gilles’ family and friends swirl around interpreter Joëlle Rozéfort, who had accused Jean-Gilles of stealing money from her car the previous day.
The morning of the boy’s death, “Joëlle came to me while I was washing dishes, saying Gérard shouldn’t have stolen money from her,” Raphaël said. “While she was talking, a soldier came in and told me Gérard had hung himself! Her face stayed quiet… Even when Rozéfort found the money in her trunk, she kept on saying that Gérard was a thief.”
Bele also doesn’t believe Jean-Gilles committed suicide. “He’s dead because of the money,” he said. Shortly after the hanging, Bele and Raphaël both lost their jobs at the base.
The northern region’s former Government Delegate, Georgemain Prophète, represented the Haitian state in its initial dealings with the UN on how to probe Jean-Gilles’ death. They agreed the Haitian judiciary would open an investigation, he said.
The case was given to Heidi Fortuné, a Cap Haïtien investigating judge (juge d’instruction) since 2006.
“The autopsy can only show whether or not he was strangled, but it can’t determine if it was a suicide or if someone else hung him,” said Fortuné. “They sent me the case to investigate if it was a suicide or not – that’s my job.” Continue reading