The despot returns: 'Baby Doc' Duvalier back to haunt Haiti

After almost 25 years in exile, the troubled nation's detested leader is on a mission 'to help rebuilding'

Intrigue, sheer bafflement and considerable anxiety surrounded the unexpected return of Haiti's former despot, Jean-Claude Duvalier, otherwise known as "Baby Doc", to his native land as international human rights groups called for his immediate arrest and prosecution for crimes against humanity.

After almost 25 years in exile in France, Mr Duvalier arrived at Port-au-Prince's airport aboard an Air France jet late on Sunday with almost no warning to the authorities in Haiti. He was greeted by a crowd of about 200 supporters before being whisked to one the first city's few still-standing first-class hotels.

With all of Haiti and a good portion of the world's diplomatic community waiting agog to see what might happen next, Mr Duvalier, 59, began yesterday huddled in the hotel with figures described as political advisers. He earlier asserted to a local radio station that he was "not here for politics" but to help the "reconstruction of Haiti" a year after its earthquake.

So deep was the disgust once evoked by Mr Duvalier's name that the mere notion of Baby Doc ever returning there would have seemed almost absurd. He assumed power as a 19-year-old from his terminally ill father, Francois Duvalier – Papa Doc – in 1971 .

After he settled into comfortable obscurity in France it was assumed that was where he would stay for good. Miami's Haitian community, a large portion of which arrived in the United States to escape the brutality of the Duvaliers, was galvanising to protest his presence in their native land. A rally denouncing Baby Doc was planned for later yesterday. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged the authorities to arrest the one-time dictator.

Mr Duvalier, accompanied by his long-time companion, Veronique Roy, had travelled on an expired diplomatic passport and the authorities in Haiti only learned of his impending arrival after the Air France plane, which had departed from Paris, took off again after a scheduled stop in Guadalupe. The information came from the French embassy.

With observers scratching their heads as to why France allowed Mr Duvalier to board the plane in the first place, officials in Paris noted only that Mr Duvalier had notified the French government of his intention to visit Haiti but that he had not been specific about timing. While rumours swirled last night that his arrest might be imminent there was no indication that any outstanding warrants still existed.

Many things about the shocking return of Baby Doc remained unanswered, such as divining his true intentions. The timing, surely, could hardly have been worse. The country is still struggling to recover from the devastating earthquake of one year ago and a cholera epidemic. It is also in the throes of a yet another political crisis triggered by presidential elections last November that were chaotic and inconclusive.

Speculation that Mr Duvalier wants in some way to fill the vacuum created by the election debacle might subside only if he leaves Haiti promptly or if he is arrested. Rumours also abound that his being in Haiti will prompt another leader-in-exile, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to hurry back. If both figures were allowed to pace the stage of Haitian politics again things could become volatile, to say the least.

Many Haitians today have no first-hand memory of the brutality of the Duvaliers. Father and son used a militia, the Tonton Macoutes, to terrorise the population and impose their rule. Between them, according to estimates, they ordered the deaths of between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitians while pilfering what riches the country offered and shoring up their own fortunes in overseas banks.

"The Haitian authorities must break the cycle of impunity that prevailed for decades in Haiti," Javier Zuniga, a special adviser at Amnesty International, said in a statement urging the former dictator's arrest. "Failing to bring to justice those responsible will only lead to further human rights abuses."

A report on the recent election from the Organisation of American States (OAS), ruled last week that a the candidate favoured by the incumbent President René Preval should be excluded from a run-off that should have taken place on Sunday. Instead, the OAS, said the run-off should be between Mirlande Manigat, an opposition candidate who took the most votes in the first round, and a popular Haitian singer, Michel Martelly.

Mr Duvalier had expressed a interest in returning to Haiti twice in recent years. Few took him seriously but a small party of supporters has remained active in Haiti.

Life and crimes of a dictator

In 1971, Haiti's authoritarian leader François "Papa Doc" Duvalier died and passed the mantle of presidency to his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, pictured. Despite being one of the youngest heads of state in the world, Haiti's new dictator quickly dubbed himself "President-for-life" and used a brutal private militia known as the Tontons Macoutes to assert his rule.

Baby Doc was accused of repression, corruption and widespread human rights abuses throughout his 15 year presidency, during which more than 100,000 Haitians fled the country.

Baby Doc chose not to continue his father's fearsome cult of personality, which used Haiti's traditional voodoo religion to underpin his power. Instead, he preferred a reputation as a playboy.

He managed to maintain relative political stability until 1986, when domestic protests and international pressure finally forced Baby Doc to flee to France on a US military jet. In the years before his swift departure, he is accused of salting away millions of dollars of public money from his impoverished nation and stashing the funds in Swiss bank accounts.

An expensive divorce from his former First Lady is thought to have drained a large chunk of his wealth, but he remained in comfortable exile in France until his return to Haiti this week.

In 2007, Baby Doc asked the people of Haiti to forgive him for "errors" made during his time in power.

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