Joseph Michel François
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Michel François was born on 8 May 1957. In 1991, he helped topple Haiti’s elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. From October 1991 to October 1994, an unconstitutional and brutal military regime led by Raoul Cédras (see “related cases”) governed Haiti. As chief of the police and secret police under Cédras, François was one of the primary leaders terrorizing Haiti.
From the beginning of the military dictatorship, the Haitian Armed Forces used civilian attachés or paramilitaries to support their campaign of intimidation and repression against the people of Haiti. The three-year military dictatorship was characterized by widespread state-sponsored human rights violations committed by the Haitian Armed Forces and the paramilitary organization FRAPH (Front Révolutionnaire Armé pour le Progrès d’Haiti), in Haiti. The practices of the military and FRAPH included extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, and rape and other torture and violence against women. Several thousand people were killed during the period of military rule. These abuses also caused thousands of Haitians to flee the country, often in crowded, unseaworthy boats.
FRAPH members received arms and training from the Haitian Armed Forces who were running the government, and FRAPH was used by the military to maintain control over the population. With the financial and logistical support of the Haitian Armed Forces and certain Haitian civilians, FRAPH killed, arbitrarily detained, raped and otherwise tortured or mistreated civilians in the poorest neighbourhoods and regions of Haiti. They also looted and burned or destroyed homes in an effort to break the resistance of the population to military rule. Rape of women was utilized in Haiti as a technique to terrorize the civilian population after the coup d’état in 1991.
Joseph Michel François was accused of having been involved in the Raboteau massacre. This atrocious event, which took place 18 to 22 April 1994, in Raboteau, Haiti, consisted of an attack by military and paramilitary units on pro-democracy activists under Haiti’s 1991-1994 dictatorship (see “spotlight” for more information about the “Raboteau Massacre trial”). As Lieutenant Colonel, François was one of the persons in charge of the massacre.
In September 1994, the United States military arrived in Haiti to secure the return of the democratically-elected government headed by President Aristide. The high command of the military regime, among others Joseph Michel François, fled Haiti, escaping to nearby countries. François fled to the Dominican Republic. When the Dominican Republic deported him in 1996 for plotting another coup in Haiti, François landed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where he was running a modest furniture store. It was here that he was arrested by U.S. prosecutors in March 1997 and charged with smuggling 33 tons of cocaine and heroin into the U.S. from his private airstrip in Haiti, while taking millions in bribes from Colombian drug lords. Francois denied it all and stayed in a Honduran prison until July, when the Honduran Supreme Court opposed its veto to U.S. extradition efforts for lack of evidence and released him.
During a brief episode of constitutional order created after Haiti’s first peaceful transfer of power in 1996, the judiciary of Haiti pursued an investigation of human rights violations committed under the military regime. François was charged under the Haitian Criminal Code of criminal conspiracy and improbity. As the mastermind behind and/or accomplice of the Raboteau massacre, he was also charged with homicide and attempted homicide, assault and battery as well as illegal arrest and detention, followed by torture, pillaging, theft, damage or destruction of property, abuse of authority, property offence, crimes and misdemeanours against the constitution.
On 16 November 2000, a Haitian trial court convicted François of murder, in absentia, for his role in the Raboteau Massacre, a military/paramilitary attack on civilians. The case was based on his command responsibility and role as accomplice. The repression was considered to have been organized systematically and on a national scale. It was noted that Gonaïves, and particularly Raboteau, had been targeted throughout the coup years, and that the leadership was well aware of this repression. The attack was considered to have been planned and covered up by national military and civilian leaders.
Joseph Michel François received the mandatory sentence of forced labour for life. Under the Haitian Code of Criminal Procedure, if those convicted in absentia surrender or are arrested, they have the right to a new trial. The Court also issued a civil damages judgment against the defendants and in favour of the victims, for 1 billion gourdes (about $43 million US).
Haiti’s Raboteau Massacre trial was a major development in international law in 2000. The case was a milestone in the international fight against impunity for large-scale human rights violations. The core of the prosecution’s case was eyewitness testimony.
The trial concluded on 9 November 2000 when, after six weeks of trial and five years of pre-trial proceedings, a jury in the Haitian city of Gonaïves convicted sixteen former soldiers and paramilitaries for participating in the April 1994 Raboteau Massacre. Twelve of these were convicted for premeditated murder and received the mandatory sentence of forced labour for life. The other four received sentences from four to nine years. A week later, the judge convicted thirty-seven more defendants in absentia, including the entire military high command and the heads of the paramilitary FRAPH (Front Révolutionnaire pour l’Avancement et le Progrès d’Haïti). The in absentia defendants all received the mandatory life imprisonment, but they are entitled to a new trial if they return to Haiti. The case was based on command responsibility and accomplice theories.
The Raboteau case marked a sharp break with a long tradition of impunity in Haiti. The case was the most complex in the country’s history, and was the first broad prosecution of commanders for human rights violations.
On 3 May 2005, the convictions of at least 15 of the Raboteau defendants that took place on 9 November 2000 were overturned in one fell swoop by Haiti’s Supreme Court in a murky ruling. But the annulment of the convictions appeared to apply only to those convicted at the jury trial, and not to the other self-exiled defendants convicted in absentia, such as paramilitary leader Emmanuel Constant, and the three top leaders of the military dictatorship, Raoul Cédras, Philippe Biamby and Michel François (see “ramifications”).