by Moyiga Nduru
(IPS) JOHANNESBURG -- Haiti and South Africa are at odds over the fate of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Although the two countries are located at opposite points on the globe, distance seems unlikely to make the heart grow fonder in this matter.
The problem stems from Aristide's unceremonious departure from office earlier this year, after rebels seized several towns and cities in the Caribbean island nation. The violence coincided with celebrations marking 200 years of independence in Haiti.
Washington contends that Aristide stepped down voluntarily. However, his supporters claim that he was coerced into leaving by the Bush administration and bundled into an American plane that eventually landed in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic.
Aristide's opponents celebrated his departure as the beginning of a new era in Haiti but their jubilation was premature.
Since the former president left the capital, Port-au-Prince, in February, conditions in Haiti have been chaotic. Armed militias allied to Aristide remain active, as do members of the army that he disbanded in the mid-1990s. This week, gunfire resounded near the presidential palace just as the United States' Secretary of State Colin Powell was about to meet with Haiti's interim leaders.
Reports indicate that a shot was also fired from a car passing the building. Members of a Brazilian-led United Nations peacekeeping mission returned fire, and a number of UN tanks were later seen patrolling the front of the palace.
The UN troops form two-thirds of a 6,700-strong force, the other members of which are drawn from the ranks of Haiti's police. Its inability to restore order to the island has prompted Prime Minister Gerald Latortue to accuse Aristide of masterminding violence in Haiti with South Africa's blessing. Three weeks ago, Larortue also issued an arrest warrant for Aristide on corruption charges.
His allegations have sparked angry reactions on the part of Pretoria: in a statement, South Africa's deputy foreign affairs minister, Aziz Pahad, said Larortue's allegation had "no factual basis."
"No evidence exists to back up the claim that President Aristide is involved in any activities aimed at the destabilization of Haiti," he noted. "South Africa and indeed President (Thabo) Mbeki cannot be used as a scapegoat for failure by the interim Haitian authorities to bring about peace and stability to Haiti."
Pahad said Mbeki had agreed to host Aristide as a visitor of the South African government "pending the resolution of the political situation in Haiti."
No extradition treaty exists between Pretoria and Port-au-Prince.
"I think they can only apprehend Aristide when he travels overseas, say to France, Belgium or the United States. I don't see South Africa handing him over to Haiti," Andrea Malasy, a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told IPS.
"If Haiti has no extradition treaty with South Africa, it (issuing the warrant) will be a futile exercise," Khabele Matlosa of the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute of Southern Africa remarked.
"Haiti is wasting a lot of efforts on things which are out of the theatre now. Aristide had been a party to the developments in Haiti, but he is now outside the country," he added, in an interview with IPS. "It's better for it to focus on immediate factors of the conflict like peace building and poverty alleviation."
The poverty that Matlosa speaks of has been exacerbated by double-digit inflation since January. According to UN Figures, 55 percent of Haiti's population lives below the poverty line of a dollar a day. Staple foods such as rice, beans and cooking oil are starting to become too costly for the poorest of the many poor.
Aristide also has critics in South Africa. Tony Leon, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said in a statement recently that Aristide was "enjoying safe haven at the expense of the South African taxpayers."
As this exchange of words continues, Amnesty International, the London-based human rights watchdog, has expressed concern about abuses perpetrated by Haiti's belligerents since the beginning of the armed insurrection on Feb. 5. These include possible revenge killings.
In a statement issued last month, Amnesty cited the case of four young men who were killed in broad daylight by individuals wearing black uniforms and balaclavas. Witnesses identified the vehicles of the assailants as being police patrol cars.
The group also criticized the arrest of a 13-year-old street child by naval police.
"At the police station, he was questioned about the hiding places being used by the 'chimeres' (armed groups said to be supporters of former president Aristide) and brutally beaten by police while handcuffed and blindfolded," Amnesty claimed.
The organization also noted that "former military and paramilitary leaders" implicated in human rights abuses were now in the leadership of the opposition, something that could undermine efforts to bring those responsible for infractions to book. A cycle of impunity might take hold in Haiti, Amnesty warned.
December 8, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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