UN Investigating Prison Massacre Examined in New York Times Report

May 24, 2010

The UN has announced it is investigating the killings of between 11 and 40 prison inmates in Les Cayes following the earthquake – an incident examined in a feature New York Times report over the weekend. The Times reports that eyewitness accounts blame police – who were backed up by UN forces – of carrying out the murders of prisoners as they lay on the ground, rather than a “prison ringleader” whom Haitian officials say committed the killings before vanishing. UN documents, the Haitian National Police inspector general’s own report, and statements by prison employees, judicial officials, and victims’ relatives also refute the “prison ringleader” story.

The Times reports that the massacre followed an escape attempt:

The escape plan, set in motion on Jan. 19 by an attack on a guard, proved disastrous. With Haitian and United Nations police officers encircling the prison, the detainees could not get out. For hours, they rampaged, hacking up doors and burning records, until tear gas finally overwhelmed them.

In the end, after the Haitian police stormed the compound, dozens of inmates lay dead and wounded, their bodies strewn through the courtyard and crumpled inside cells. The prison smoldered, a blood-splattered mess.

Haitian officials here say they did not use lethal force but rather found lifeless bodies when they entered the prison. They attribute the killings to a prison ringleader who, they say, slaughtered his fellow inmates before hopping over the wall and disappearing.

The Times says the prison authorities were not exactly helpful to either their reporters, the victims’ families, nor others who might question the official explanation:

Prison officials would not allow The Times to enter the walled prison compound, which sits directly behind the police station in the heart of town. But reporters interviewed six witnesses to the disturbance as well as five others who visited the prison either immediately after the shootings or the next day. None saw inmates firing weapons or any evidence that inmates killed inmates. Instead, witnesses said the police shot unarmed prisoners, some in the prison yard, others in their cells. Afterward, the authorities failed to notify inmates’ relatives of the deaths, buried bodies without conducting autopsies and burned the surviving prisoners’ bloodstained clothing and shoes.

The article also notes that “many of the bodies were buried in an unmarked grave.”

It is questionable whether a UN investigation will turn up much more evidence to counter Haitian officials’ version of events that exonerate the police. For one thing, much of the evidence – especially from the victims’ bodies – may be irretrievably lost, now that so much time has passed since the January incident. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has also previously acted as an accomplice to the Haitian National Police’s shooting of civilians at protest marches or in “anti-gang” sweeps through slums – not to mention its own history of killing unarmed civilians and other crimes.

The article also demonstrates the importance of media inquiries into such abuses. In this case they seem to have led to action on the part of the U.S. Embassy:

For four months, American and United Nations officials have made no public comments about the killings at Les Cayes, saying they were urging the Haitians to handle the matter themselves. But after The Times repeatedly raised questions about the case with American officials, the United States Embassy sent a human rights officer to Les Cayes. The United Nations mission chief in Haiti, Edmond Mulet, has now ordered the United Nations police commissioner here to begin an independent inquiry.

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