[News] Haiti's Prisoner of Conscience Returns
news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 28 12:17:37 EDT 2007
Haiti's Prisoner of Conscience Returns - Beloved "Mon Pere"
Jean-Juste Comes Home
by Bill Quigley
Bill is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University
New Orleans. Bill assists Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats
Internationaux in Port au Prince and Brian Concannon of the Institute
of Justice and Democracy in Haiti in representation of Pere
Jean-Juste. He can be reached at Quigley at loyno.edu. Those wishing to
contact Pere Jean-Juste directly should email him c/o lavarice at bellsouth.net.
Pere Gerard Jean-Juste, an outspoken Haitian voice for human rights,
economic justice and democracy, returned to Haiti last weekend for
the first time since being hustled out of a prison cell by heavily
armed guards and put on a waiting plane to Miami in January of 2006.
Pere Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest, had spent nearly six months in a
series of Haitian prisons for refusing to stop his public criticisms
of human rights abuses by the coup government which overthrew elected
President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Once in Miami, Father Jean-Juste
was immediately hospitalized for treatment of leukemia by Dr. Paul
Farmer, a long-time friend, who had secretly performed a biopsy on
Jean-Juste in his prison cell.
Now, a year and a half later, Pere Jean-Juste was coming home, not
knowing how he would be received. As the plane landed in Port au
Prince, Father Jean-Juste quietly blessed himself as he saw his home
parish, St. Claire, from the window.
As he walked towards the entrance to the Toussaint L'Ouverture
airport, dozens of people waved and clapped from the balconies
overlooking the landing space. Inside, airport officials, police
officers, media and church members crushed in on him. Patting his
back, shaking his hands, giving him hugs, the crowds pressed in and
called out "Mon Pere!"
A new Haiti greeted him. The unelected coup government had finally
left the country. The people elected President Rene Preval. Democracy
Inside, TV cameras, microphones, and tape recorders were thrust in
his face. Many wanted to know if he was going to be a candidate for
Presidency of Haiti in the next election. Father Jean-Juste laughed
and said, "The only election in the Catholic Church is for Pope - and
since the Pope is in good health, I do not see an election anytime soon."
Father spoke of the disappearance of the human rights activist
Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, called for the return of President Aristide,
and urged people interested in human rights in Haiti to keep the
pressure on - nonviolently. He was returning to Haiti on a
pilgrimage. Was he afraid of death he was asked? "I am a Christian,"
he replied. "I know where I am going. If I die, I know the struggle
will continue. The struggle must continue for human rights and
As he tried to leave the airport, a mob of hundreds of celebrating
people surrounded him, cheering and chanting his name, trying to
touch him. Dozens of UN blue helmeted troops with plastic riot
shields pushed the huge crowds back to allow his car to exit as the
crowd ran alongside.
A makeshift wooden platform was set up at a nearby park to allow
Father Jean-Juste to speak to the crowd which had grown to well over
a thousand people. On the front of the platform was a big handmade
sign - FIDEL KATOLIK YO DI'W BON RETOU PE JANJIS - celebrating his
return. The blazing mid-day sun did not stop the celebration. Ra-ra
bands made up of drums and horns of all types wandered through the
crowd as Father Jean-Juste spoke. When it was time to leave for his
church, the crowds surged in again and it took many helpers to clear
a path for his car to leave.
People of all ages lined the highway along the way to the church,
waving and cheering. Black and white photocopied pictures of Pere
Jean-Juste were plastered to cement walls next to full color pictures
of the Haitian flag.
For the first time in over two years, Pere Jean-Juste was going home
to St. Claire's Church in Port au Prince.
The last time he was in his home church was July 21, 2005. That day
Fr. Jean-Juste went to the funeral of slain journalist Jacques Roche
at St. Pierre's church. During the funeral services in the church,
Fr. Jean-Juste was attacked by a mob, chased through the church
building, spit on, beaten, and nearly killed. The unelected Haitian
authorities arrested Father Jean-Juste for the second time in less
than a year and kept him in a succession of prisons in an attempt to
silence him. Amnesty International designated him a Prisoner of
Conscience and a world-wide campaign was launched to protect his life
in prison and to help win his release. When he was released for
medical treatment in Miami the authorities would not allow him to
visit his church on the way out.
Hundreds waited at the church for the return of their long-time
pastor. When he finally arrived, people sang and cheered. Soaking
wet, Father Jean-Juste tried to greet as many people as possible and
thank them for their support and good works while he was away. After
greeting as many as he could, he went up to his small room in the
upper part of the church. There, he fell to his knees and prayed
silently for several minutes.
The celebratory mood was hushed by the arrival of several trucks of
armed police. Ten men in the uniform of the Haitian National Police
marched up the stairs to see Pere Jean-Juste. To the joy of all, each
of the police officers went up to Father, shook his hand, and
promised to protect him while in Haiti. A 2005 visit by police to the
church resulted in Father's arrest and another six months in prison.
This was quite a change. Democracy worked a wonderful change in the police.
Human rights lawyer Mario Joseph told Father Jean-Juste that the
prosecutors had dropped all the bogus criminal charges levied against
him to keep him in jail and silent during the coup government. But
some judges insisted that he return to Haiti for a court hearing on
November 5, 2007 to have all the charges formally dropped.
All evening, people came to the upper room of the church to greet and
pray with Pere Jean-Juste. At one point nine women holding hands were
circling Father in prayer. Other times there were cameras and tape
recorders. Outside the church, women walked up the dusty paths with
plastic buckets of water on their heads. The air was smoky and
darkness settled in quickly.
At 9:30, Father Jean-Juste unlocked the door to his bedroom. For the
first time in twenty-five months, he was home.
The next day started sunny and hot. There were reports that
Dean was in the vicinity of Haiti but there was no evidence of it
yet. As Father Jean-Juste arrived at early morning mass, the gathered
women burst into song thanking God for his return. Another priest who
is a good friend said the Mass while Father Jean-Juste prayed along
from the choir seats. Invited to concelebrate the mass, Fr.
Jean-Juste declined, and the priest praised him for his dedication to
the church and to the people. At the priest's invitation, Father
Jean-Juste distributed communion.
Around noon, Father arrived at the Aristide Foundation building to
speak to hundreds of hot but cheering supporters. The crowd was full
of energy. They passionately sang the Haitian national anthem, prayed
and danced and clapped to a series of songs, had a long moment of
silence for the thousands who lost their lives opposing the coup of
2004. One person in the front row held up a double frame of pictures
- one of former President Aristide and another of Father Jean-Juste.
Dozens wore red, white and blue t-shirts saying "Welcome back Father
Pere Jean-Juste, dressed all in black, spoke to the crowd for nearly
an hour. They cheered, laughed, fell somber and then became excited
as he told of his experiences and the challenges facing all in Haiti.
As he finished and left people surged in again.
Back at the church, group after group came to visit. Beautiful music
soared above the conversations as the choirs practiced in the church
below. People from Cite Soleil and other parts of Port au Prince and
Haiti came and asked Father Jean-Juste to come visit their neighbors.
TV crews, youth groups, church members, politicians, other priests,
and the members of the choir all came. As darkness fell, Father led
those still at the church in a spirited forty minute rosary.
During the night, the winds of Hurricane Dean arrived with force.
Trees were bobbing and weaving - rain was coming into the church
Despite the high winds and rain, 6:00 am mass was a full house of
people cheering and signing in thanksgiving for Father's return.
After mass, visiting resumed and the hurricane did not slow down the
flow of visitors either.
Pere Jean-Juste greeted every one, child or grandmother, politician
or journalist, with a smile. He was confident and comfortable. After
two six month jail terms and enduring over a year of cancer
treatment, he was clearly enjoying every second of his return and
every person he could meet.
As darkness fell on his last night in Haiti, Pere Jean-Juste attended
the closing celebration of the church's summer camp. During the year,
hundreds of children are fed daily by the church members with funding
from the US-based What If Foundation. In the summer camp, the number
of children and meals swells to over a thousand a day. Fifty
community members serve as counselors and the children learn
painting, sewing, crocheting, and other arts and crafts.
Yellow paper streamers hung under the tin roof that sheltered the
kids and counselors and family from the rain during the end of the
summer camp celebration. Children cheered as "Mon Pere" arrived and
sang him spirited songs. The children performed skits and counselors,
by candlelight, showed Father their arts and craft creations.
Particularly gratifying was the installation, while Father was away,
of several outdoor toilets for the community including one with full
Throughout his last night, people continuously knocked on the door of
the church to come and see him. A robust midnight rosary was sung by
the community. Father said he got three hours of sleep but that
In the early morning, the first plane since Hurricane Dean's winds
slowed down, arrived in Port au Prince. While waiting for the plane
and while on the plane, people continued to come up to Father to
greet him and touch him and welcome him. As the plane took off and
his country receded from view, Pere Jean-Juste closed his eyes and
prayed for Haiti.
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