Interview Jean-Joseph Exumé

Jean-Joseph Exumé

He was Haiti's minister of justice and public security during the earthquake. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in early October 2010.

What was your job in the government?

As minister of justice and public security, it was my job to be the connection between the police and the penitentiary and justice system.

And what did you find when you began to look at the justice system?

I think the justice system is not working. And you have many reasons for that. I think the first reason is the fact that the judges don't have the motivation. They don't want to work correctly to do the job.

“I think it’s a kind of conspiracy that we don’t want the justice system to emerge. It’s a political question. It’s not a technical one.”

Very often, some of them, they do the job, but besides the job, they do something else. They go to the teaching, etc. That means those people don't have the motivation to do the job correctly. ...

And secondly, we have to be frank: There is a lack of equipment, of materials. A judge, the courts, they are not well equipped to do the job.

And third, we have to specify that we have many, many problems in the laws in Haiti. Some of the laws are obsolete, and of course if you have obsolete laws, you have a problem in the functioning of the system. ...

Give me an example of an obsolete law.

The entire criminal procedural code [Code of Criminal Procedure, or Code d'Instruction Criminelle] [was] voted on in 1820 to 1835. That means it's the French law, and you don't have so many changes since the voting of this law.

For me, it's a very, very big problem. We should go first to the criminal procedural code, because in this there is the possibility to change the pace of the procedure, to have less time between the arrest of a person and the trial.

What specifically with the 1835 law makes the system so slow?

It's not the law which is bad, but that you have to update the law because the society changes. You have many other crimes coming. That we don't have.

Why not?

First of all, political will. You should have the political will that the government or president will come and say, "OK, we are going to change that," and [then] take the steps to change that. We don't have that.

Another point, very simple to understand: You have the legislative branch; you have the executive branch and the judiciary. In the history of Haiti, never have you had a period of time where the judiciary comes up. In general, it's the executive. In fact, we don't have the judicial power. We have is a judicial body, but not the judicial power.

It's good for the executive, because this way they are safe. If you steal, do something wrong, you have an interest not to have the justice system functioning correctly, because if the public prosecutor is independent, you should go to prison.

If you go to any other country and do something wrong -- you know that the law can [get] you. But here, I think it's a kind of a conspiracy that we don't want the justice system to emerge. It's a political question, in fact. It's not a technical one.

So it's been in the interest of powerful politicians in Haiti not to update the law, because it suits them to have a weak judiciary?

Exactly. It's my point of view. I did all I could to have something changed in the justice system each time I was minister.

And what happened?

I think that it's not so easy. Alone, you can have some minor changes, [but] if you want to do something very strong, you should go to the structural part of the system, and you should have means for that.

I can say, "I think I should build other courts all over the country." But with what am I going to do that? I need the money, and who is going to give me the money?

You were saying that the judges don't work. ... What is the reason for that?

It's a question of control, because if you have a judge, that judge knows that he has to come to the court at let's say 9:30, and he has to leave at 4:00 or 4:30, something like this. But he doesn't care, because you don't have a system that controls if he comes on time, if he does the job, if he gives the decision on time, etc.

For me, it's a question of control. In 1995 when I was minister, I changed the law by decree to reinforce the capacity of the ministry to control the judges.

Of course I've been criticized for that, because they say, "What you have done is something which doesn't permit the independence of the judges." I said, "OK, I agree, but you have to begin with something." ... It's not reasonable to say that I'm going to give you independence, and you will not work; you won't do the job.

Do you know how long, on average, a judge spends at work on a given working day? Are there any statistics about that?

I don't have statistics.

Someone told me that the average amount of time that a judge spends at work these days is 52 minutes.

(Laughs.) I think it's an exaggeration. I think that some judges work very hard, in fact. I don't say that all the judges are lazy, but it's the system.

But if they're not working in courts, then what are they doing, sitting at home?

Yeah, exactly, because when you have a civil trial, the lawyers come; they plead; they give their arguments; and the public prosecutor gives his opinion; and you go home with the files, and you are going to give the decision.

But you have a delay, a time frame to do that. And you don't do that on time, and no one is entitled to tell you why you didn't give the decision. It is the reason why you have a big problem in Haiti of preventive detention.

Because the judge doesn't do the job correctly. If someone is in jail it's an obligation for you to try the person. But you don't do that, and you have sometimes someone who could be sentenced for three years, and he spends five years in prison.

Awaiting trial?

Awaiting trial. And if he had been tried before, he should be sentenced only three years. Three years is the maximum. ... The person should be free. It's the reason why I think that in Haiti, what we have to do now is have the judges working correctly, give them the position, the means to do their job, and control them.

In the course of our work, we've interviewed a number of criminals, and a lot of them have said you can just pay the judge to find a problem with a case. ...

Yeah, it's the corruption.

Tell me about corruption in the judiciary.

First of all, corruption is everywhere. You have corruption in customs; you have corruption in the tax office, everywhere. But why do we have corruption so largely implemented here? It's a question of impunity, because the person does something he knows in advance, no one will fire me. But the day you begin firing people, to make an example of them, the corruption will decrease. ...

Can you say that there is justice in Haiti?

Yeah, I should say that there is justice. But I should add that the justice is weak. There is justice because you have the laws; you have the court; you have the judges; you have a system and laws. But the system lacks force. The Haitian people don't have confidence in the justice system. They prefer to do something by themselves.

When I was looking at the list of these 4,500 prisoners who escaped from the [National] Penitentiary when it broke during the earthquake, only around 10 percent [had gone to trial]. The others were all [waiting].

Yeah. They were waiting.

Preventive detention.

Preventive detention.

That means that 10 percent of the prisoners in the national prison had seen a judge, but 90 percent of the people in prison hadn't seen a judge.

When you have someone in preventive detention, that doesn't mean he has never seen a judge. As in other countries, you have three types of infractions: first, contravention, which is the lowest one -- it's the law's infraction; secondly, the [misdemeanor]; and [then] the crime.

The big problem we have is the crimes, because when you have crimes, you have to go to the judge of instruction, ... and one judge of instruction can have 200 cases that he's investigating.

It's a big problem here, because the judge of instruction doesn't have, I think, the capacity and expertise to conduct an investigation. That means he doesn't have the means to do that even if he wants. ... The judge of instruction can say, "I don't see any good reason to send you to trial," and he frees you.

But 90 percent of the people in the prison were awaiting trial. They hadn't been to trial.

I don't have the exact figure. Maybe it's more than that, or less than that. I don't know. What is clear, we have a lot of prisoners. They are awaiting trial, and that means everything. You have some people who should be tried before the correctional court and others in criminal courts.

But don't forget that for the criminal, you always have the judge of instruction, and it's the reason why, I think, if you want to change at all the system, you have to look very carefully at the judge of instruction.

It is astonishing that so many people are being held awaiting trial. As you say, it undermines people's confidence in justice. And then also these prison breaks. ...

Yeah. For example, the salary of a judge has been increased significantly. But for me, it's not a question of salary. You could give four times that; it's not proved that the judge will be fairer, if you want, because the question is the environment.

If I agree to become a judge, I must be sure that I won't be fired tomorrow by the president or the prime minister or other minister. ...

So judges are often removed?

Very often the judge is removed, even if the law says no. The judge of peace, which is the lowest judge, but who is very, very important, because he has 85 percent [roughly] of the population depending on him, can be removed by the minister. It's not good.

Explain to me briefly how the system works and the role of the judge of peace. [What's the procedure for a case?]

The judge of peace plays two roles in the system. You go in front of him for civil cases, commercial, etc. And at the same time he's a public official, meaning if there is a crime or any infraction, he's the one who prepares the case to send to the public prosecutor. And at the second level, you have the correctional judge. And at the top, you have the criminal judge. It's for criminal cases.

But in civil cases you have the judge of peace.

When we've been on several police operations, there's been a judge of peace there. What is the job of a judge of peace on a police operation?

The judge of peace is the one in the justice system in Haiti who is entitled to say, "Yes, I saw this body." No one else can do that. It's the reason why, when the police, for example, want to enter a house, he has to be accompanied by the judge of peace, because otherwise it's not legal to do it. It's what we have to change also. It's what I'm saying.

Why don't you give to the police the capacity to enter the house? Of course the policeman has to respond, respect the law. He has to report to his superior, but it's too complicated. It's like a system which doesn't work. ... We should give a delegation of power to the police. ...

We've been to see the forensic service, and they don't seem that busy. It makes me wonder, when a case comes to trial, how often is there any forensic evidence?

I have to tell you that very, very often -- too often -- we don't have any forensic analysis, because, first of all, you need a laboratory; you need expertise; you need a person who knows how. No, we don't have that. Not only [should] you have the personnel, but you should have the means, because to make a test, an exam, you need materials for that. All over the country, you should have laboratories. It [should] not be necessary to come to Port-au-Prince. ...

If there is very seldom any evidence in a case, then how are people convicted?

OK. In crimes I think that you have the testimonies, which is in the Haitian law, the key proof testimonies. But we have to say that there is a beginning now. We have at least the laboratory. But it's too insignificant when you consider the whole problem. ...

Several days ago, we asked the head of the forensic service to call us when they had a body. I know for sure there must have been murders in Port-au-Prince, but they said to us, "If you're on a murder scene and we're not there, could you please call us?," because the police don't call them. I thought that was odd.

OK. The system is divided into three components. You have the police, as I said before; you have the National Penitentiary; and you have the justice, which should be connected, which is not. For example, now you have many, many criminals who have broken [out of] the prison. ... We should have the capacity to interconnect all the public prosecutor's office and the courts and the police. It's what we don't have. We don't have this coordination between the bodies of the justice system. Each body has a tendency to work by itself.

You were saying earlier that chaos and the lack of an effective justice system is to the advantage of a number of people, maybe many people, at all levels of society.

Yeah. For example, you have to look at the economic situation, because many, many vagrants, persons who committed crimes, it's really because they don't have the means to live.

And it's not because I want to justify [crime], but it's a reality. It's a country where there is an attraction to commit crime because we have the impression that the government doesn't care [for] the people. They leave the people living in bad conditions.

For example, the situation that we have today, nine months after the earthquake, and you have plenty of people living under tents. Can you imagine what's going on in a camp in terms of criminality, in terms of violation of rights, in terms of spoiling the life of people?

I was talking to Edmond Mulet, [the head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)], about this yesterday, and he was saying that law and order is important, but at the sort of micro level, the absence of law and order, the fact that if I make a bit of money someone might kill me for it because I'm not protected. What is that doing to Haiti's ability to progress beyond the stage of a gulf between poor at the bottom and millions and millions of very poor people and then a tiny fraction of rich people?

I think the key is employment. We have a capacity in the country to do something huge and to have many people working jobs.

I am thinking about refinery, petroleum or something like that -- a big investment. That's what Haiti needs today, someone or a corporation who comes and says, "OK, I'm going to do this, and we are going to have 1-2 million people having jobs and going to the schools between 3 and 17 [years]."

Is that not the case?

No, it's not. That's not the case. It's not the case at all, because the question is: which priorities are number one, and which priorities are number two? Because in Haiti, this is the reality -- everything is a priority. But you have to make the choice and decide, [of] all the priorities, which is the best one, the first one, because you can make damage to the system if you don't do that.

So you think that private-sector investment is the key to --

There is no other way to develop Haiti. It's the private sector, national and international, which comes in and says, "OK, the state can't do that."

I don't say that we have to forget about the state. I don't say that we have to accept all those NGOs [non-governmental organizations] coming and replacing the state. No, I don't think that is good. But at the same time we have to be realistic. Now the Haitian budget relies on the international community for 60 percent to 70 percent. It's not normal.

We have to look for big investment which can give some autonomy to my country, because now the country depends on the international. And sometimes the international doesn't have bad faith, but they don't understand. They don't know the situation really, because they have a computer with a program which has been very successful in Africa, in that [other] country, and it comes here. They just say, "Why not here?" But each country has its specificity; each country has its history. You have to take care of that. ... Without participation of the Haitian [people], you can be sure that you are going to fail.

I've worked all over the world, in 60 or 70 countries, and this is unusually tricky to understand, in the sense there seems to be a very well-developed habit of projecting to outsiders a certain appearance while very, very consciously assuming the opposite course. Nothing is what it seems.

(Laughs.) We call that "marronage." It's a way to give something that's not the reality. When we had slavery, some slaves escaped and went to the mountains -- Haiti is a mountainous country -- and sometimes they came back at night to steal, to do something wrong. [They would say], "I'm a marron." It means, "You can't catch me. You can't catch me. What I give you is what I want to give you. I don't permit you to enter in my habit, in my way of life. I show you what I want to show you." It's marronage.

So it's a whole concept?

It's a whole concept, but it's a reality, too, because many people apply it to their life and to the perception they give. They are very, very careful about the perception that they give. They want you to catch this perception and not the other one. It's the reason why I said you have to be very, very smart. I mean, if you come to Haiti, you have to know the history of the country and some particularities of the country.

So this marronage has played a big part in absorbing foreign influences and foreign money, and maybe it explains why so many billions have come here.

Exactly. It's the reason why, when you come, you should carefully study what you are going to do before coming, OK? But at the same time, you can come and make a study when you are here. It's possible, too. ... I'm confident that the Haitian is a kind of special people really.

You can be very surprised if you give the possibility to Haitians to emerge, what I think maybe people don't want so far. You can be very surprised to see the miracle that they can do, because it's a people with a strong desire to live, with commitment to what they are doing. See, some people, they don't have money, but they send their kid to school, and they have their blood really sold to have their kid going to school.

It's not only in Haiti; even in the United States, you see many of the Haitians who have emigrated to the United States, many of them have their kids with college degrees. They invest in the education of their children, whether or not in another country. ...

You said this marronage is a survival technique, a sort of psychological smokescreen to stop people having real information and power. The concept is fascinating, because it helps to explain a lot of our experiences here. People spin an illusion for you.

Yeah. The last thing I could tell you about marronage is people that you have in the camps, many are not victims of the earthquake. What they did, they have their house in Jalousie which is OK. But the camps are an opportunity, because they think that maybe the state or the international community will come and build houses -- I'm in a tent, and they will take my name, etc., and maybe they will build me a house. I'm at my house during the day, and at night I go back to the tent. Or sometimes I don't come back at all. But it's a way to position the possibility to have a house. It's another face of the marronage.

But a lot of those people won't get houses; that's the thing.

Well, no.

So the government is doing marronage with them.

Exactly. The government is doing marronage also, because we have to be clear -- the government doesn't have the capacity to build houses for 1 million people. Impossible. But you could have some NGOs, but the question is, if the NGO doesn't do that [swiftly] with the state, it will be a mess, because you go here, and you are an NGO. You build, let's say 200 houses or 500 houses, and you build at one kilometer [away] 400 houses. What does that mean?

We should have a plan to say, OK, here we are going to build a new village; a new village will be constructed here. The step this year 200 [houses], this [next] year 400 [houses], and so on. But if each NGO decides to do something on its [own], then it will have some of the slums.

Did you ever go inside the main penitentiary before the earthquake? What was it like then?

Most of the inmates were awaiting trial, and in the National Penitentiary you had all the violent criminals. But this is not the first time that the National Penitentiary broke. From what I remember, the National Penitentiary broke at least four times: 1981, 1986, 1985, 1990. ... It was common to have the prison broken. It's common.

So that must mean that actually there is real impunity, not only because of the justice system, because of --

In the police there's impunity, in the prison guards. It's simple.


Corruption. ... Impunity is the key question in Haiti. You have to act; you have to work very hard to change that, to have the possibility to control what's going on in the system. And to do that you already have the law. I don't want people to say, "OK, you have some laws, but they are obsolete." But they are still there and you have to apply them.

The last few times that the prison was broken and the prisoners escaped, how did that happen? There was no earthquake, but how come the prisoners escaped from jail?

Good question, because, for me, very often, if you see the National Penitentiary, I don't see how you can have evasion, jailbreak. Very often it's opening the gate, complicity with the prison guard[s]. They open it.

You know, when you have some event -- for example, when [President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide had to go abroad after the demonstrations, they took advantage of this to open the gate. If you want to find the reason that the gate was broken, go to the guards.

The guards?

Yes. Very often it's that. It's not a physical event like the earthquake. ... Impunity, lack of control, is the reason why those things happen without any sanction, any punishment. ...

There's been a government report, hasn't there, a government inquiry into the -- ?

Yeah, there was a government report. No one sees [it], but I don't think it is so available. There is a big case in [Les Cayes,] because you know that after the earthquake there was a shooting of the prisoners, and at least 15 of them were killed. The police tried to [flee], but I think that the judge of instruction, he [caught] those policemen. They are in jail. Such an investigation could be finished after one month. It's [going on] too long ... [We] should send them to trial immediately.

But they're still sitting in the National Penitentiary. I've seen them.

Oh, you have seen them.

No, in Haiti what you see is never -- nothing is what it seems to be.

Yeah, marronage.


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Posted January 11, 2011

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