Free This Priest

Father Gerard Jean-Juste is no outlaw. He's a Magic City hero.

In 1998, on his radio show from Port-au-Prince, Ginen, he helped authorities find the parents of a twelve-year-old girl who was gunned down in an Allapattah flea market.

In Haiti he ministered to a parish of 80,000 Haitian families in a church on a dirt road outside Port-au-Prince. He organized a program to feed 600 youngsters twice a week. And, of course, he politicked, pushing relentlessly for Aristide, even after the president was overthrown in a bloody coup in February 2004.

Jean-Juste's serious problems began in October of last year. Armed security officers dressed in black and wearing black ski masks arrived at his church, broke through iron bars and windows, and then dragged him away on suspicion of inciting violence and hiding pro-Aristide gunmen.

Back then, only 20 of 1000 inmates in the prison where Jean-Juste was housed had even seen a judge, according to Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who has represented Jean-Juste in Haitian courts. "In jail," Quigley says, there were "no beds, no blankets, and no water to bathe."

The priest was released after seven weeks for lack of evidence. "It is a big mistake of trying to lock up this guy who is speaking truth," Quigley adds. "He has never said anything about violence; he has never raised a gun."

This past July, Jean-Juste visited South Florida and led a demonstration at the Brazilian Consulate in Miami. The protestors urged that nation — which is led by a former union organizer named Luiz Inácio da Silva — to speak out against the United Nations' role in 23 killings in Cité Soleil on the island. "He came to town, said we had this massacre occur, conditions are horrible, please do something," Lieberman says. "So we went to the consulate and basically pleaded our case."

A couple of days later, Jean-Juste headed back to Haiti. Three Veye Yo members I spoke with said a pro-government Kreyol-language radio host in Miami called for violence toward Jean-Juste back on the island. "Before Father Jean-Juste left, everybody knew something would happen to him," Veye Yo's Gaudin comments. "But he said he had a mission."

In Haiti, Jean-Juste — along with Quigley, who was visiting — decided to attend the funeral of the murdered journalist Roche, a supporter of the interim government whose family is related to Jean-Juste's. There the crowd beat them and chased them into a toilet stall before Jean-Juste was arrested and thrown into a jail, where he has remained ever since.

Amnesty International termed him a political prisoner a few days later. This past August, Jean-Juste fell ill and nearly died in the prison. Recently recovered, he now sleeps on a rubber mat on a concrete floor beneath a picture of murdered Salvadoran priest Oscar Romero.

In September a group of U.S. Representatives including Kendrick Meek, Robert Wexler, and Alcee Hastings — all Democrats — sent a letter to Prime Minister Latortue calling for Jean-Juste's freedom. Referring to the release of a convicted murderer, Louis Jodel Chamblain, Meek said, "It is a sad day when a respected community leader, committed to helping the poor, is locked away in a prison cell while a convicted human rights abuser walks free."

In Little Haiti, Jean-Juste's supporters have hung pictures emblazoned with "Free Jean-Juste" in many restaurants and businesses. "Jean-Juste is my best friend," says Merus Benoit, who owns Ben Photo studio on NE 54th Street. "He suggested I go to Miami Dade College to learn English. Any time he needed a picture taken, I took it. I'd do anything for him"

At the urging of the Bush administration, elections in Haiti were scheduled for November (though they were recently postponed until December) and more than a half-dozen Haitian presidential candidates have raised money in South Florida. Jean-Juste has even pondered a try; on August 25, he told the Associated Press he would run for president "if Aristide approves my candidacy." But then, after the Archdiocese in Haiti disciplined him, he withdrew.

The problem in Haiti is not quick elections (just as that is not the answer in George W. Bush's more distant morass, Iraq). The answer is more U.S. aid to Haiti, more help to beleaguered U.N. troops there, and a concerted campaign to free Jean-Juste and jailed former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. Miami, more than any other U.S. city, has a strong tie to the island nation. And to many of the Haitians here, Jean-Juste's imprisonment is the top issue.

"Jean-Juste is a black eye on the government of Haiti," Neree says. "As long as he is in jail, there can be no free and fair elections."

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