PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – As a political prisoner in the 1970s at Haiti's most dreaded lockup, Claude Rosier sat in his squalid, crowded cell and dreamed of the day that tubby, boyish dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier would face justice.
The 79-year-old, who was starved and tortured in the notorious Fort Dimanche and other prisons for nearly 11 years during the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship, said Friday he is hopeful that long-awaited day of reckoning may soon be at hand.
"All I hope to see with the Duvalier case is justice. Not just for me, but so history does not repeat itself in Haiti," Rosier said at a Port-au-Prince hotel, where he joined another ex-political prisoner and a human rights lawyer to speak about the prosecution of Haiti's former "president for life."
Just 19 when he assumed power after the death of his infamous father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, in 1971, Baby Doc's 15-year rule was marked by torture, extrajudicial executions and the disappearance of hundreds of people. The strict order was enforced by the feared Tonton Macoute secret police, which killed and extorted from countless Haitians.
Duvalier was deposed, put on an American plane and flown in 1986 to France, where he lived in quiet exile ever since — until he stunned the nation by abruptly showing up in his earthquake-shattered homeland last month. He claimed he wants to help with reconstruction, though some have speculated that he hoped returning might help him unlock millions of dollars frozen in Swiss bank accounts.
Whatever his motivation, the 59-year-old Duvalier now faces an investigation into allegations of corruption and human rights abuses dating to the dictatorship era, and a judge has until April to decide whether it will go to trial.
The complex case is part of a global push to hold former dictators accountable for atrocities during their reigns, said Human Rights Watch counsel Reed Brody, and it could break important new legal ground in Haiti, where the judiciary — like other institutions — is historically weak and ineffective.
"This case provides a real chance to put Haiti's justice system squarely on the side of those who have suffered under his rule," Brody said. "It will set a precedent and will be a civics lesson on a very dark period in Haiti's history.
"The trees need to be shaken to get people to come forward, even if people are still scared. But I think there's good evidence so far," Brody added. "And as far as we can tell, the political will is there. ... It's important that it be carried over into the next government" — a reference to the power transition that should take place in the coming months from Presidential Rene Preval to his yet-undetermined successor.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has offered to assist in the prosecution, saying the alleged crimes have no statute of limitations.
Duvalier has mostly stayed inside his guarded compound since returning and not commented on the accusations other to offer, in public comments last month, "my profound sadness toward my countrymen who consider themselves, rightly, to have been victims of my government."
One of his U.S. lawyers, Mike Puglise, said people are beginning to "voice their support" of Duvalier in Haiti. He pointed out that some residents of the seaside town of Leogane enthusiastically greeted Duvalier and his entourage during a visit this week.
"They understand that his return is what he said at the beginning, that he's trying to help his people," he said earlier this week.
A handful of loyalists campaigned for years to bring Duvalier back, launching a foundation to improve the dictatorship's image and reviving Baby Doc's political party.
Millions are too young to remember life under the dictatorship, and at least some Haitians hope that Duvalier could help restore order to the chaos. "Welcome, President Duvalier," read two separate graffiti scrawls in Port-au-Prince, though pro-Baby Doc demonstrations have been relatively small.
Bobby Duval, a former soccer star who was starved and tortured during 17 months without charge in Fort Dimanche, on the edge of the Port-au-Prince harbor, said Duvalier more rightly belongs behind bars.
"For myself, yes, I need closure. But a trial is really needed to bring light to all these victims who disappeared," Duval said. "There hasn't been a family in Haiti who hasn't been hurt by the Duvalier regimes, both father and son."
Associated Press writer Jacob Kushner contributed to this report.