SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Haitian President Rene Preval said Saturday that ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had every right to return home from exile, but must now face an investigation of alleged abuses during his reign.
Preval’s first public comment on Duvalier since the former strongman’s astonishing arrival in Haiti a week ago came at a news conference during a surprise trip of his own to the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Accompanied by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, Preval said they met with Dominican President Leonel Fernandez for four hours to discuss Haiti’s political crisis and a cholera epidemic. He spoke briefly and fielded only three questions.
“Duvalier had the right to return to the country, but under the constitution, he also must face justice,” Preval told reporters. “If Duvalier is not in prison now, it is because he has not yet been tried.”
Preval added that by law, Haitians cannot be barred from their homeland – and that applies to both Duvalier and former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been in exile in South Africa since his ouster in 2004 but recently spoke of wanting to come back.
“They do not depend on my decision,” Preval said. “It is the nation’s constitution that prohibits (forced) exile.”
Preval declined to say whether he knew ahead of time about Duvalier’s sudden appearance in the country Jan. 16, after 25 years in exile.
Duvalier says he came to help his shattered nation rebuild from last year’s massive earthquake, which killed an estimated 316,000 people.
However the former leader, who ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986 through terror and the regime he inherited from his father, has found himself under investigation for corruption, embezzlement, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, crimes against humanity and other alleged abuses during his reign.
On Friday, the 59-year-old, who is in frail health, said he was prepared to face “persecution.”
In the Dominican capital Saturday, Preval did not comment on his country’s disputed Nov. 28 presidential election, which was marred by widespread fraud, or on growing international pressure for Haiti to accept an Organization of American States recommendation that his favored candidate be left out of a runoff.
According to preliminary results, Preval-backed candidate Jude Celestin finished in second place and would square off against top vote-getter Mirlande Manigat in a second round.
However OAS election observers found problems with the count. Their calculations indicated that Michel Martelly, a singer known as “Sweet Mickey,” beat Celestin and should be in the runoff.
The U.S. and other foreign forces have been pushing the government to accept that ruling.
Haiti’s electoral commission has said it will consider the OAS recommendation.
The runoff was originally scheduled for Jan. 16 but postponed amid the wrangling. Some critics have argued that the entire election was flawed and should be thrown out and done over.