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Haiti Tries to Grasp Long Arm of the Law With Judicial Reforms

Reforms must counter decades of corruption

GRAFFITI on the walls throughout Haiti scream for punishment of the crimes committed during the three years of military rule that ended last year.

But despite the writing on the wall, justice will not come easily to Haiti, even five months after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to power by United States military intervention.

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With the atmosphere of terror created by military rule replaced by increases in armed robbery and petty crime, Haitian officials and foreign advisers are looking to the judicial system as the linchpin that can hold society together. A reformed justice system could halt growing lawlessness and heal wounds left over from earlier abuses, they say. With US Justice Department funding and support, training for court officials began last month.

``The greatest obstacle is to convince people that this is for real,'' says Carl Alexandre, a Haitian-American prosecutor leading the US team. ``They are so used to the military style of governing that they have become prisoners to it. I think only now people are beginning to realize that, yeah, maybe this change is for real.''

The reforms have to counter decades of official corruption. Haitian judges traditionally have bought rather than earned their positions, and are often ignorant of the law. There is no law library in Haiti; few justices graduate from law school, and many do not even have a high-school diploma.

Ties to French court

Low salaries encourage corruption: A justice of the peace may earn just $100 per month; Supreme Court judges earn less than $500. Unlike in the US, where lawyers wage battle with an impartial judge as arbiter, Haitian law is based on the French system. The judge plays a more aggressive role, questioning witnesses and leading investigations.

``That's why any reformation of the judicial system, if it's going to work, requires highly trained, incorruptible judges of unimpeachable character,'' says Haitian law expert William O'Neill. ``Haiti has next to none,'' he says.

According to the 1987 Constitution, most judicial positions are appointed by regional justice departments. But these positions, and often the judges' verdicts, really go to the highest bidder.

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Corruption rampant

``Anybody who is honest wouldn't accept the position of justice of the peace,'' says one lawyer, who requested anonymity. ``And it's the most important position because they play the role of a conciliation judge. I've done a survey across the country and all these guys, from the very, very top to the errand boys at the bottom, are corrupt,'' he adds.

The Justice Ministry is considering a proposal that would target law students for training rather than try to reform sitting judges.

But many who graduate from law school do not go into the legal field. In 1991, only 20 of the 120 students who completed the four-year program at the country's only state-owned law school, the State University Law School, received an official law degree.

Judicial reform is especially slow in the countryside, where the law is often unenforced.

In the northern community of L'Estere, there are no police, so judicial reforms would be moot. ``The justice of the peace, his assistant, the state defender - they are all here,'' said Gregueur Jules, secretary-general for the town. ``But they can't do much good if there are no police. They can write an arrest warrant, but there's no one to serve it.''

L'Estere, a town with roughly 40,000 people, had five murders last month. Across Haiti, 95 homicides have been reported since Nov. 28 - an average of one a day nationwide.

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