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Haiti judge: Try Duvalier on corruption charges

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A Haitian judge said Monday that former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier should face trial for corruption, but not the more serious charges of human rights violations committed during his rule.Investigative Magistrate Carves Jean said the statute of limitations had run out on the human rights charges but not on the accusations of misappropriation of public funds. He did not explain his reasoning, but the once-feared ruler known as "Baby Doc" is widely believed to have used money from the Haitian treasury to finance his life in exile.

Jean did not release the verdict, based on a yearlong investigation, saying it must first be reviewed by the attorney general as well as by Duvalier and the victims of his regime who filed complaints against him.

The judge said he recommended that the case be heard by a special court that handles relatively minor crimes. Duvalier, who has been free to roam about the capital since his surprise return from exile last year, would face no more than five years in prison.

Duvalier attorney Reynolds Georges, who had argued that the case should be dismissed in its entirety because the statute of limitations had expired on all the charges, said he would appeal the decision as soon as he received the paperwork.

"We're going to appeal that decision ... and throw it in the garbage can," Georges told The Associated Press.

Duvalier has posed a challenge to Haiti since his return home from 25 years in exile, which he had spent in France. Haiti has a weak judicial system, with little history of successfully prosecuting even simple crimes, and the government is preoccupied with reconstruction from the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

A majority of Haitians are now too young to have lived under Duvalier but many still remember his government's nightmarish prisons and violent special militia, known as the Tonton Macoute, which killed and tortured political opponents with impunity.

More than 20 victims filed complaints shortly after Duvalier's return. Some were prominent Haitians, including Robert Duval, a former soccer star who said he was beaten and starved during his 17 months of captivity in the dreaded Fort Dimanche prison.

On Monday, Duval said he was stunned when he was notified about the judge's decision and unsure if he planned to file an appeal.

"I don't understand how he could've done that," Duval said by telephone. "If that's the case, that's an outrageous decision."

Since its inception, the case has stumbled along. Prosecutors have been fired and the defendant has made few court appearances, despite pressure from advocacy groups saying a successful prosecution would mark a turning point for Haiti's weak judiciary.

The United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti said it was eager to see the case go toward a trial but Western embassies in Port-au-Prince, including the United States, remained largely mum on the matter, saying it was up to the Haitian government.

For his part, Haitian President Michel Martelly gave mixed signals. Last week, the first-time politician recanted a suggestion from a day earlier that he might be open to a pardon for Duvalier, citing a need to end internal strife that has long dogged the country. A presidential adviser said, "A Duvalier pardon is not part of the agenda."

The Martelly administration did little to put Duvalier critics at ease when it filled its ranks with former officials from the Duvalier era and grown children of members of the former dictator's inner circle.

Meanwhile, Duvalier traveled around the capital and countryside, hobnobbing with friends, dining at high-end restaurants and even attending a memorial service for the victims of the 2010 earthquake. The judge, Carves Jean, threatened to arrest Duvalier this month because he was allegedly violating the terms of his release.

An international advocacy group that has helped push for a trial, Human Rights Watch, called on Monday for an appeal of the judge's decision.

"Those who were tortured under Duvalier, those whose loved ones were killed or simply disappeared, deserve better than this," Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an e-mail. "This wrong-headed ruling must be overturned on appeal if Haitians are to believe that their justice system can work to investigate the worst crimes."