PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Inside the courthouse shaded by mango trees, the deposed dictator sipped coffee as lawyers and judges conferred.
Outside, several hundred Haitians – most too young to have a memory of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s cruel reign – chanted his name, burned tires and cried for his freedom.
In a daylong drama that frequently bordered on the absurd, Haitian authorities took Duvalier from the luxury hotel outside the capital where he has been staying since his surprise Sunday return from exile and bundled him off to court for questioning.
Questioning about exactly what remained unclear. His entourage said he was not under arrest, and his release later in the day would seem to confirm that. But an investigative magistrate agreed to open a case against the one-time tyrant that would look into allegations that he stole millions of dollars from the hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Meanwhile, human rights organizations, and many victims of the Duvalier dynastic rule, are demanding that he be prosecuted for crimes against humanity as justice for tens of thousands of people believed to have been killed or tortured by Duvalier’s forces decades ago.
And still, he has a certain following here in Haiti. How real, how deep, is a matter of debate. Several of his old Cabinet ministers are at his side and eagerly making his case to hordes of journalists dogging his every move.
“Whatever happened 25 years ago was 25 years ago,” said Camille LeBlanc, former legal adviser to the Duvalier Cabinet.
Mostly, his following is born of desperation, nostalgia for a Haiti that hardly existed. Reeling from an earthquake a year ago that killed more than 300,000 people and doomed 1 million to squalid tent camps, plus a raging cholera epidemic, Haiti is perhaps suffering its worst series of crises ever. That can make an old regime, even one that was brutal and dictatorial, look pretty good.
“We lived much better under Duvalier. We had jobs, and we could afford things,” said Marjorie Almino, 43. “Today we live like pigs, if you excuse my language.”
Almino hoisted the large red-and-black flag of Duvalier’s political party outside the courthouse.
The detention of Duvalier played out over several sun-drenched morning hours Tuesday.
About 15 well-armed Haitian police, some wearing ski masks, marched into the upscale Karibe Hotel, where Duvalier was staying, following close behind a judge and a top prosecutor. Then several of Duvalier’s lawyers appeared, fighting their way through the gathered journalists and announcing they had been summoned because Duvalier was about to be arrested.
Finally, Duvalier agreed to be taken away for questioning. He descended the staircase, crossed the lobby and was led through the kitchen and out the back, where a dark blue SUV awaited him. Along the way he waved at reporters, waiters and hotel staffers. He moved unsteadily and needed assistance. His gaze appeared only semi-focused.
Under the guard of U.S. SWAT team members from the United Nations police force, the convoy carrying Duvalier left the hotel.