Haiti death squad commander’s plea thrown out

From the Center for Justice and Accountability via Haiti Action, May 22:

Brooklyn, NY — Today, the judge in the mortgage fraud case of former Haitian death-squad leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant dropped Constant’s plea bargain and ordered him to stand trial. If convicted, Constant could now face five to fifteen years in New York state prison.

The judge had been urged by attorneys from the Department of Homeland Security and the New York Attorney General’s office to give Constant credit for time served, 10 months of the previous plea agreement of one to three years, in order to expedite his deportation to Haiti. However, after taking into consideration evidence submitted by the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and hundreds of letters from the community that detailed Constant’s history of human rights abuses, the judge decided to throw out the plea bargain and force Constant to go to trial.

What began as a simple procedure for the imposition of a sentence based on a negotiated plea, became “something far more complex,” wrote State Supreme Court Justice Abraham Gerges in today’s decision to undo the plea agreement.

CJA and CCR provided the judge with extensive documentation of Constant’s role as the head of a brutal paramilitary force known as FRAPH (Revolutionary Front for the Advancement of the Haitian People). Citing to these materials, Judge Gerges wrote, “On June 7, 1995, defendant was deposed for a federal case against FRAPH and stated, ‘I’m not a member of FRAPH, I’m a leader of FRAPH.’ These allegations, if true, are heinous, and the court cannot in good conscience consent to the previously negotiated sentence. The court also cannot consent to time served, as that would be a travesty. The plea is hereby vacated and all counts of the indictment reinstated.”

The judge set a trial date of September 24, 2007 for Constant’s trial on the mortgage fraud charges.

At CJA’s initiative, Haitian human rights attorney Mario Joseph appeared before Judge Gerges to advocate that Constant should serve the maximum sentence under the law in New York. Mr. Joseph also testified that, if deported immediately to Haiti, Constant could escape justice by taking advantage of the current situation of chaos and corruption in Haiti’s judicial system.

Mr. Joseph of Haiti’s Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, who has represented numerous victims of FRAPH’s campaign of violence in legal efforts in Haiti, had this to say: “I am pleased to give voice to the many voiceless from Haiti who were not able to appear with me in the courtroom and confront Mr. Constant. It was important that the Court understand Constant’s role in violence that plagued Haiti during the 1991 to 1994 military dictatorship during which at least 5000 people lost their lives. Although I hope to see Constant face criminal prosecution in Haiti one day, the decision not to deport him immediately is important as it allows more time for the Haitian judicial system to overcome weaknesses and corruption that currently stand in the way of prosecuting human rights cases. I am encouraged to hear that the Court has ordered Mr. Constant to stand trial for his crimes in New York, as he is someone who is not deserving of leniency under the law.”

After the return of democracy to Haiti in October 1994, Constant fled and came to the U.S. Despite the outcry from the Haitian community and human rights organizations, he lived and worked freely in New York until he was arrested in July 2006 in connection with the mortgage fraud scheme.

CJA and CCR previously joined forces as co-counsel, along with pro bono attorneys from the firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP, in a human rights civil case in New York federal court that resulted in a $19 million judgment in October 2006 against Constant for torture, including rape, attempted extrajudicial killing, and crimes against humanity carried out as part of FRAPH’s reign of terror during the period of military rule in Haiti from 1991 to 1994.

CJA is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization which works to deter torture and other severe human rights abuses through impact litigation, education and outreach. CJA is the only U.S. based human rights legal organization solely devoted to seeking justice and accountability on behalf of torture survivors against their perpetrators in the courts.

See our last post on Haiti and Emmanuel Constant.

  1. Further details…
    From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 3:

    In a Brooklyn court on May 22 New York state justice Abraham Gerges ordered Haitian paramilitary leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant to stand trial on charges of grand larceny in connection with a $1.7 million mortgage fraud scheme. Justice Gerges’ decision kills a deal that state prosecutors and the US Department of Homeland Security made with Constant under which he would plead guilty and then be quickly deported to Haiti. Gerges had held off ruling on the deal in a hearing on May 15 after lawyers for the New York-based human rights group, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), argued that the Haitian judicial system was too unstable to bring Constant to justice if he was returned now.

    Constant faces a prison sentence of five to 15 years if he is convicted of the larceny charges. His next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 24.

    In his May 15 hearing, Constant, who set up the rightwing Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) in the early 1990s, claimed he was afraid to return to Haiti, which he fled in 1995, after US troops returned deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994. But in a hearing on May 21 he reversed himself, telling Justice Gerges: “If I ever touch Haiti, I will be executed at the airport.” He also repeated claims that he was working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) while he headed FRAPH and that he had been “promoting reconciliation.”

    A Haitian court tried Constant in absentia and convicted him of murder, arson, rape and other human rights violations. Under Haitian law he is entitled to a new trial if he returns to Haiti. FRAPH’s second in command, Louis Jodel Chamblain, was convicted of two crimes in absentia. After he returned to Haiti in 2004 he was acquitted of one crime in a hasty August 2004 trial; the charges in the other case were dropped in May 2005. (New York Times, May 23; Newsday, May 21 from AP; Agence Haitienne de Presse, May 22)