Haiti's Duvalier: Life was better with me in power

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier angrily defended his rule Thursday at a hearing on whether he can be charged with crimes against humanity.

Duvalier, who came to power as a teen, ruled with an iron fist until being ousted in a popular revolt in 1986 and fled into exile in France, returning just two years ago, tried to turn the tables on today's Haitian rulers.

He said people had in fact lived better under him.

"What have you done with my country?" he asked the judge in a much-delayed session at which he confronted victims of his regime for the first time. His supporters in the courtroom cheered.

Former opposition figures have accused Duvalier of deploying the feared Tonton Macoute militia and of complicity in murder, torture and kidnapping.

The issue at stake in Thursday's hearing was whether the statue of limitations on the alleged human rights abuses has expired.

Duvalier, 61, said on Thursday that when he was president, Haitians were indeed impoverished but things more or less limped along "and Haitians sent their children to school."

"I cannot say life was great but people lived decently," he said.

Duvalier spoke so softly to Judge Jean-Joseph Lebrun that a court clerk had to repeat his words so everyone else could hear them. The judge had asked him if he assumed responsibility for his actions as president.

Duvalier said he had done his best to give the people of the western hemisphere's poorest country a decent life.

"Upon my return I found a country in ruins and engulfed by corruption," he said. "It is my turn to ask, 'what have you done with my country?'"

The judge at one point told Duvalier he was accused of ordering illegal arrests, torture and political killings.

"How do you answer?" the judge asked.

Duvalier said: "Each time cases were reported, I intervened so that justice was rendered."

Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, expressed satisfaction that Duvalier was finally in court.

Victims of his regime were in the courtroom, and were to testify later.

One former political prisoner, Robert Bobby Duval, told AFP Duvalier was "a true dictator, and has shown his true temperament."

Duvalier was summoned by a judge to appear Thursday after failing three times previously to show up in court.

He wore a dark suit and white shirt as sat in the packed courtroom with his companion Veronique Roy.

Outside, several dozen supporters wearing the red and black colors that symbolized the old regime shouted out support for the former ruler, saying "Long live Duvalier."

A Haitian court decided last year that too much time had passed for Duvalier to be charged with crimes against humanity, which are protected by a statute of limitations. His alleged victims have appealed that decision.

Duvalier was the world's youngest head of state when, at the age of just 19, he succeeded his late autocratic father Francois "Papa Doc" in 1971. He was overthrown in a popular revolt in 1986 and fled to France.

He returned to Haiti two years ago after 25 years in exile.

Duvalier had initially been scheduled to appear in court on February 7, but failed to show up and instead sent a letter accusing the judge of taking the plaintiff's side and asking for the hearing to be postponed.

He was also a no-show at a hearing last week, prompting the judge to issue an order mandating his appearance at Thursday's hearing.

He objected to the original hearing date because it was the symbolically fraught anniversary of the 1986 day when he was overthrown.

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