Haiti's Duvalier apologizes for past, urges unity

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Ousted Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier has apologized to the victims of his 15-year regime and said he had ended two decades in exile to work for national reconciliation.

"I have come back as a sign of my solidarity during this extremely difficult period in national life," he said Friday in his first full public statement since his sudden return late Sunday to the nation he once ruled with an iron fist.

"Baby Doc" Duvalier said he also wanted to "voice my deep sorrow to my fellow countrymen who say, rightly, that they were victims under my government."

AFP file - Supporters of ousted Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier demonstrate outside Hotel Karibe in Port-au-Prince.

Speaking in a weak voice to a room packed full of journalists, the 59-year-old called for "national reconciliation" in Haiti and said he had hoped for a "rapid resolution to the political crisis."

But he did not outline what had happened to those who suffered under his 1971-1986 regime.

Instead, speaking mainly in French with a few words of Creole, he offered "sympathies to my millions of supporters who, after my voluntary departure from Haiti in 1986 to avoid a bloodbath and to allow a swift resolution to the political crisis, were left to themselves."

The ex-dictator said thousands of his supporters were "assassinated, suffocated, interrogated, subjected to tire necklaces burnings; their houses, their possessions were pillaged, uprooted and torched."

With so many unanswered questions, his words are only likely to stoke further tensions among people with long memories of his brutal rule.

Many fear he is seeking a return to power by capitalizing on the current political chaos stalking the quake-ravaged Caribbean country.

And Duvalier, who fled amid a popular uprising, did not explicitly rule out taking on any political role.

Haiti, already struggling to recover from the devastating January 2010 earthquake and a cholera outbreak, is caught up in deepening political turmoil due to disputed presidential elections.

"The electoral system is broken," said popular singer Michel Martelly, who came in third place in November's presidential elections according to initial results released by Haiti's election commission (CEP).

The OAS said many of the tally sheets it reviewed had been tampered with or altered in favor of President Rene Preval's chosen candidate, Jude Celestin.

It has recommended that Martelly, not Celestin, should square off against former first lady Mirlande Manigat in the run-off.

The United States, backed by Britain and France, has warned Haiti's leaders that they should follow the OAS recommendations to ensure a credible government is in place or risk losing international support.

Stepping up the pressure on Preval, the US State Department said Friday it had revoked visas for some Haitian government officials.

Memories of Duvalier's repressive regime remain vivid, and human rights groups have accused him and his late father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, of presiding over decades of unparalleled oppression and abuse.

Amnesty International said Haitian officials were opening a probe into alleged torture and killings. "It's an important moment for fighting impunity," said Gerardo Ducos, Haiti researcher for Amnesty.

And the nation's chief prosecutor Harycidas Auguste told AFP that lawsuits alleging abuse by the Duvalier regime were beginning to flood into his office.

"Of course, there will be many more people presenting charges now" that Duvalier has returned from his long exile in France, Auguste told AFP.

"We can't really say for sure by when we'll stop receiving complaints. Even at the trial, if we arrive at that stage, someone may come and claim to have been a victim."

One theory to explain Duvalier's return is that he is hoping to win back some of the $5.7 million frozen in Swiss bank accounts.

Under a Swiss law that goes into effect on February 1, the last of Duvalier's frozen assets could be confiscated and returned to Haiti even if the Port-au-Prince government has not taken legal action to get them. But his return to Haiti may thwart that process.

The Swiss government alleges Duvalier looted between $400 million and $900 million from Haiti during his rule.

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