PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier faced corruption and human rights charges in a court on Thursday for the first time since a popular revolt forced him into exile in 1986, and denied responsibility for abuses under his 15-year rule.
Individual government officials “had their own authority,” the 61-year-old Duvalier said when asked about his role as head of state from 1971 to 1986. “Under my authority, children could go to school, there was no insecurity.”
Duvalier, who had boycotted three previous court hearings, struck a mostly defiant tone during a four-hour grilling by a panel of three judges in a packed and sweltering courtroom.
After his last no-show a week ago, Judge Jean-Joseph Lebrun issued a warrant ordering his presence, under police escort if necessary.
Duvalier, dressed in a navy-blue suit and tie, slipped into the courthouse unescorted early on Thursday, arriving in his own car several hours before the hearing started accompanied by his longtime companion Veronique Roy.
Hundreds of Duvalier supporters gathered outside the courthouse soon after his arrival, some dancing and chanting “Long live Duvalier.”
The pretrial Appeal Court hearing was held to determine what charges Duvalier may have to face. It is the first time he has personally been required to address crimes allegedly committed during his rule.
International human rights observers are closely watching the case and consider it an important test of Haiti’s weak justice system after decades of dictatorship, military rule and economic mayhem.
“Whatever happens next, Haitians will remember the image of their former dictator having to answer questions about the repression carried out under his rule,” said Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch.
During the hearing Duvalier was asked by the judges about more than a dozen of the most notorious cases involving alleged extra-judicial killings and detention of political prisoners.
“He was asked tough questions and his answers were mostly evasive,” said Amanda Klasing, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who attended the hearing.
“He was very calm, almost indifferent. His facial expression didn’t change at all,” she said.
Several alleged victims were in court and expressed satisfaction that he had finally appeared.
“He will have to face history in court, just like other dictators around the world are facing,” said Alix Fils-Aime, who was imprisoned by Duvalier’s government.
The hearing was adjourned in the afternoon and is set to resume next Thursday.
Reynold Georges, who heads Duvalier’s legal team, had argued unsuccessfully at a hearing last week that his client’s presence in court was not required.
Duvalier was briefly detained on charges of corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds after returning to the impoverished Caribbean nation in January 2011 following a 25-year exile in France. Those charges are still pending.
Separate charges of crimes against humanity filed by alleged victims of wrongful imprisonment, forced disappearances and torture under Duvalier, were set aside by a judge last year because the statute of limitations had run out.
But the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has warned Haitian authorities that there is no statute of limitations under international law for serious violations of human rights.
Critics say prosecutors have been too lenient in Duvalier’s case. President Michel Martelly’s government recently renewed Duvalier’s diplomatic passport, saying he was entitled to it as a former head of state.
Duvalier, who inherited the title “President For Life” at the age of 19, is alleged to have fled Haiti with more than $100 million stashed in European bank accounts in 1986 after street demonstrations and riots broke out in a number of cities.
His departure ended nearly three decades of dictatorship begun by his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, in 1957.
The Duvaliers enforced their rule with the aid of a feared militia, the National Security Volunteers, better known as the “Tonton Macoutes,” who were blamed for hundreds of deaths and disappearances.
Soon after he returned to Haiti in 2011, taking up residence in a villa in a posh suburb in the hills above the capital Port-au-Prince, Duvalier issued a brief apology “to those countrymen who rightly feel they were victims of my government,” the first public recognition of abuses under his rule.
While in exile, Duvalier acknowledged privately that killers in his government went unpunished, according to Bernard Diederich, a New Zealand-born journalist and author of several books on Haiti, including a biography of the younger Duvalier.
“He always passed the blame to others,” said Diederich, who conducted four long interviews with Duvalier in the late 1990s.
Writing by David Adams and Tom Brown; Editing by Paul Simao and Xavier Briand