PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A Haitian appellate court called for further investigation into human rights abuses allegedly committed during the 15-year rule of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, creating an opportunity for the prosecution to submit more evidence and perhaps even launch a trial against him.
The three-judge panel said Thursday that an earlier court ruling was incomplete, and called for one of the judges to interview witnesses including senior officials of the former Duvalier government, as well as victims who haven't been able to testify.
Overturning the lower court ruling, the panel also said the man known as "Baby Doc" could be charged with rights abuses because Haiti is bound by international law that says there's no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity.
"This is a good decision," Mario Joseph, one of the attorneys for the victims, told reporters. "Everyone knows what happened from 1971 to 1986," the years Duvalier was in power.
Defense attorney Frizto Canton said he would appeal the decision, saying he believes the judges were swayed by international rights groups.
Duvalier, now 62 and frail, made a surprise return to Haiti in 2011 after 25 years in exile in France. Human rights and embezzlement charges were filed against him, but he was never jailed.
Instead, he was placed under a kind of house arrest and allowed to freely roam the country. The former leader has been attending public ceremonies and private parties.
An investigative judge in 2012 threw out the human rights charges against Duvalier, saying the statute of limitations had expired, and recommended that he face charges only for the alleged financial crimes.
Duvalier's legal team appealed, saying he was innocent of all the charges.
The case seemed stuck until early last year, when victims gave two months of court testimony alleging abuse, illegal detentions and forced exile during Duvalier's rule.
Duvalier last year made a surprise appearance in court, describing Haiti as a better place under his watch and saying he opposed abuse.
Reed Brody of the New York-based Human Rights Watch hailed Thursday's ruling as a "green light" for the prosecution. "The decision says that the investigation should go forward removes any legal obstacle to Duvalier's trial," Brody said in an email.
Thousands of people were allegedly imprisoned, tortured or killed for opposing Duvalier's regime, and he wielded his influence through a private militia known as the Tonton Macoutes. He became president at age 19, the youngest in the world, after the death of his predecessor and father, "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
"Baby Doc" was ousted in 1986 amid a popular uprising.