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Haiti’s ex-dictator Duvalier may be poised for a comeback

Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images

Haiti’s onetime president for life, Jean-Claude Duvalier, is living under a very comfortable and relatively unrestricted house arrest as he faces charges including crimes against humanity.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - For a notorious former dictator facing charges of crimes against humanity, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc’’ Duvalier is living a nice life in Haiti after his sudden return from exile a year ago.

Although technically under house arrest, the onetime “president for life’’ dines with his many admirers at the chic bistros of Petionville, where he can be found at Quartier Latin, having his poulet creole. His portrait , a very flattering one, is sold on the streets.

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If money can be laundered, so can dictators. Duvalier was the commencement speaker last month at the law school in Gonaives, an appearance that the university’s president called “totally inconceivable.’’

The students cheered.

Last week, Duvalier drove himself - with a police escort - to the government’s memorial ceremony to mark the second anniversary of Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake. The audience - which included President Michel Martelly, his prime minister, and Bill Clinton - rose to greet him.

Duvalier is back in Haiti, and it is very possible that he will never be tried for the crimes that his alleged victims and international human rights groups assert he committed: forced disappearances, illegal detentions, intimidation, torture, and executions of journalists, activists, political opponents, and others.

“I cannot believe my eyes,’’ said Boby Duval, who spent nine months in the mid-1970s in Fort Dimanche, one of three prisons known as “the triangle of death’’ during the reign of the Duvalier family - father and son, Papa Doc and Baby Doc - and the Tontons Macoutes, their paramilitary enforcers and secret police.

Duval, a bear of a man who now runs a popular soccer academy for thousands of children from the slums, entered the prison as a robust young athlete.

He emerged weighing 100 pounds. “They didn’t kill you in Fort Dimanche,’’ he said. “They starved you to death. I watched people die of starvation. And you never knew, ‘When am I next?’ ’’

Soon after Duvalier returned to Port-au-Prince in January 2011, after a 25-year exile in France, three cases were filed against him, alleging embezzlement of funds, human rights violations, and crimes against humanity.

Although an older generation in Haiti recalls with a shudder the bad things that happened in the Duvalier years, many Haitians are nostalgic for the era, when the country was more prosperous, tourists were not afraid to visit, and it was the world’s leading maker of baseballs.

More than 60 percent of the Haitian population is younger than 25, so they have no memory of Baby Doc’s reign, only stories of better days.

Duvalier was a plump and pampered young man of 19 when he became “president for life’’ in 1971 after the death of his father, the far more ruthless Francois “Papa Doc’’ Duvalier, who once worked as a physician.

The younger Duvalier and his then-wife, Michele Bennett, were famous for their luxurious lifestyle and shopping sprees.

After the couple divorced in 1993, Duvalier endured a more modest exile, without the Ferrari or the mansion, living in a borrowed apartment, saying he was broke.

After months of delay in which three prosecutors came and went, his case is now before Judge Jean Carves, who has promised lawyers that he will soon rule on whether the matter will proceed to trial.

“He will be cleared of all charges. It is almost finished now; the judge is typing up the order to throw it all out,’’ said Duvalier’s attorney, Reynold Georges.

Georges said the crimes alleged - torture, disappearances - have exceeded the statute of limitations.

“Plus, they have no proof of anything,’’ he said in an interview.

Asked whether the rumors are true that Duvalier, now 60, is planning a return to politics, Georges said, “If he decides to run for president, he will be eligible, and if he runs, he will win, and I will support him.’’

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