Friday, September 19, 2008

Haiti and the Jean Dominique Investigation: An Interview with Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon

Jean Dominique and wife Michele Montas (r) at birthday event for Jean-Bertrand Aristide at Aristide's home, July 15, 1995, Photo by Michelle Karshan (not part of the published article) (Copyright)

The Journal of Haitian Studies, Vol. 13 No. 2 © 2007

Jeb Sprague,
University of Manchester

Haiti and the Jean Dominique Investigation: An Interview with Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon

On April 3, 2000, Jean Dominique, Haiti’s most popular journalist, was shot four times in the chest as he arrived for work at Radio Haïti. The station’s security guard Jean-Claude Louissant was also killed in the attack. The President of Haiti, René Préval, ordered three days of official mourning and 16,000 people reportedly attended his funeral. A documentary film released in 2003, The Agronomist, by Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme featured Dominique’s inspiring life. However, since Dominique’s death the investigation into his murder has sparked a constant point of controversy. Attorneys Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon worked for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a human rights lawyer’s office supported by both the Préval and Aristide governments. The BAI was tasked with helping to investigate the killings. A discussion with the two attorneys reveals the unpublished perspective of former government insiders who worked on the case and their thoughts on the role of former Senator Dany Toussaint, the investigation headed by Judge Claudy Gassant, the mobilization around the case, and recent revelations made by Guy Philippe, a leader of the ex-military organization Front pour la Libération et la Réconstruction Nationales (FLRN). This interview was conducted over the telephone and by e-mail during April and May of 2007.

JS: It has been seven years since Jean Dominique was killed. From your perspective, how did the investigation into the killing of Jean Dominique begin?

BC: The investigation started immediately. Police came to the scene a few minutes after the killing. There were lots of false starts, because the system, although functional, was not up to a case this tough, but there was a continuous effort to investigate.

MJ: After Dominique was killed there was a huge public funeral at a sports stadium in Port-au-Prince. Both the current President Préval and the former President Aristide participated in the funeral. Both were visibly upset. First under the Préval, and later the second Aristide administrations, our legal group the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) was tasked with following up on the case. We were initially asked by Michèle Montas, Jean Dominique’s widow, who asked me to represent her as a civil lawyer, as I was doing for the victims of the Raboteau massacre. But we were also asked to work on the case by both Presidents. Soon after Aristide was elected, and from time to time during his administration (2001-2004) we talked with him about the Jean Dominique case. We asked him, as he was the executive, what he wanted us to do on the case? He answered, “Find the murderers.”

JS: Who were the initial suspects and how did the investigation evolve?

BC: There were lots of leads at the beginning. There were leads pointing to Dany Toussaint but also several other people, including several members of what became the Group of 184.2 Some of the leads were based on witness reports. Some were based on tips—we set up a hotline in our office for tips, and the number was broadcast on Radio Haiti. Other leads were based on
circumstantial evidence.

MJ: We did not see all the evidence—under Haitian tradition the judge’s pre-trial investigation is secret—and we never saw direct evidence of Mr. Toussaint’s involvement in the crime. But there was circumstantial evidence, and our position was always that all the leads should be followed against everyone, including Dany Toussaint. Presidents Préval and Aristide both told us the same thing—pursue the case and the leads. Judge Claudy Gassant was named investigating judge on the case, I believe sometime in mid-2000, and headed up the investigation. But we felt already in 2000 that many people were using the investigation as a political tool for undermining the Lavalas movement (Aristide did not take office until 2001). The pressures from the international community and elite Haitian civil society were to pursue people based on their connection with Fanmi Lavalas rather than based on the available evidence. We were not involved in any discussions of whether or not Dany Toussaint was guilty. We did not then and still do not have enough information to take a position on that. Our interest was in the process—were all the leads, no matter where they led, being followed? Was Haitian law, and the rights of the victims, and of the accused, respected? We felt there certainly was good reason to support investigating Mr. Toussaint, and we supported that investigation. But we were also concerned that promising leads involving other targets were being neglected.