'Baby Doc' Duvalier celebrated, scorned in new life in Haiti

THOMASSIN, Haiti — They say he came home to die.

But almost four months after his shocking return, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier appears to be the epitome of life. His once gaunt frame has filled out. His round-face, robust. And he is standing tall, moving about like a man with a purpose — not an accused criminal possibly facing prison.

A one-time despot driven from his homeland in disgrace, Duvalier, 59, has been acting like a president who left at the pinnacle of his popularity. He’s holding court at tony restaurants, hobnobbing with powerful players and greeting guests at his borrowed home high in the pleasant hills above the congested capital.

"The phone is ringing all of the time and I’m receiving a lot of visitors," Duvalier told The Miami Herald, describing a typical day in the life of Haiti’s former president-for-life.

But as an aging Duvalier enjoys the perks of his new-found celebrity status in this earthquake-ravaged nation, he is igniting outrage and conflicted emotions. Former prisoners recall his repressive regime, demanding justice while others longing for the days of order insist on reconciliation. A former Haiti justice minister advising the government worries that Duvalier may never have his day in court to answer charges of corruption and crimes against humanity during his 15-year rule that ended in 1986. The judge tasked with investigating the charges has yet to issue his report and the longest imprisoned complainant, Claude Rosier, recently died of a heart attack.

Some find the timing of Duvalier’s return to Haiti peculiar. Last week the Swiss government announced it had begun procedures to return $6.7 million in frozen assets claimed by him to the Haitian government, a move some close to Duvalier said he plans to fight in European courts. And in just days, Haiti will inaugurate a new president with strong ties to supporters of his authoritarian regime.

"I did not send them and they are not there as Duvalieriests," Duvalier said about President-elect Michel Martelly’s supporters who include Daniel Supplice, a childhood friend and former Duvalier minister heading Martelly’s presidential transition teams.

Martelly has suggested amnesty for Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, another president recently returned from exile. Victims and human rights observers, who view prosecution of Duvalier as Haiti’s chance to break with impunity, call the suggestion disturbing.

The son of an often brutal dictator, Duvalier shrugs off reactions about his high-profile status and appetite for Haiti’s finest fare: "I’ve always participated in the social life of the country," he said.

For those with tortured memories of the nearly three-decade venal Duvalier dynasty, however, the new reality is difficult to accept.

"People disappeared," said Michele Montas, among scores of Haitian journalists and intellectuals jailed, some severely beaten and exiled by the regime’s boogeymen after their arrest on Nov. 28, 1980 under a 1969 anti-communist law that considered government criticism "crimes against the state."

Today, she’s among a growing group of Haitians who have filed formal complaints, accusing Duvalier of failing to prevent or punish crimes under his command, ordering arrests and prolonged detention, and in some cases of being an "accomplice" to crimes committed by his subordinates.

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