In encouraging news for justice both in Haiti in the Americas generally, a judge found eight Haitian officers guilty for a 2010 prison massacre. Shortly after the January 12 earthquake in 2010, officers opened fire on unarmed prisoners, killing and wounding dozens. While such types of police violence were regularly unpunished in Haiti, the judge found that eight of the fourteen officers charged were guilty and sentenced the eight to anywhere from 2 to 13 years of prison and hard labor. The officers had claimed they were simply “doing their job,” and that this defense did not stand is a landmark in human rights in Haiti. As William O’Neill comments in the article, “To get some senior law enforcement officials held accountable with fairly serious sentences — it’s really historic.”
The judge’s decision is particularly courageous in this regard. Ezekiel Vaval faced death threats throughout the trial, yet came to a decision that reflected at least some measure of justice for the violation of human rights in spite of pressure to let the officers walk free. And the end of the trial does not guarantee an end to the threats for Vaval; as the recent case of judge Patrícia Acioli in Brazil reminds us, judicial authorities who attempt to crack down on extrajudicial violence often face real threats to their lives from police officers who do not take kindly to the threats to their unchecked power and use of violence against the marginalized of a given society.
While the case is a major victory for human rights in Haiti and the Americas, it’s important to remember that it’s also a first step that in no way guarantees a precedent of cracking down on police who use their authority to illegally murder and torture. Throughout the region, from police forces in Brazil to paramilitary groups with official support in Colombia, the question of extrajudicial violence from the arms of the state continues to be a major issue facing societies in Latin America. Nonetheless, the fact that Haiti has cracked down in this case is an encouraging sign in the ongoing effort throughout the Americas to provide justice for police violence and to prevent future human rights violations from the forces theoretically created to protect citizens.