PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's interior minister was arrested yesterday on suspicion of orchestrating the killings of several people presumed to be Aristide opponents, officials said. The arrest of Jocelerme Privert -- the highest ranking official to be detained since Aristide's departure on Feb. 29 -- comes as former government leaders and members of Aristide's political party have complained that Haiti's interim leaders are targeting them.
"I hope this is done with due process because if not it appears to be a witch hunt," said Leslie Voltaire, a former Aristide Cabinet member. "We don't think it's a good step for rebuilding the country."
Privert was accused in the February killings of several suspected Aristide opponents in St. Marc, a northern port city where violence flared before the armed rebellion that pushed Aristide from power, the new government said.
Although Privert is accused of conspiring to kill several people in the town, officials did not say how many people were killed, nor did they provide names of those allegedly slain. "The procedure is going to follow its normal course," said Bernard Gousse, the interim justice minister.
Privert was being held at the national penitentiary. Law requires that he hear the charges against him within 48 hours.
Penitentiary inspector Olmaille Bien-Aime said Privert's cell was being guarded by US Marines who are part of a peacekeeping force. But US Embassy spokeswoman Mara Tekach-Bell denied the claim, saying, "he's not in our hands."
Earlier this year, the United States canceled Privert's tourist visa but did not explain why. The United States has canceled the visas of more than a dozen Aristide government officials in the past year, some because of alleged connections to drug trafficking.
US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said during a one-day visit on Monday that American judicial authorities were investigating Aristide on corruption charges.
"There are inquiries being made by our judicial authorities in the US to see if there is any evidence of wrongdoing," Powell said in a press conference. It was unclear whether the US government was investigating other members of Aristide's government.
In late March, Haitian police arrested Amanus Mayette, a former Aristide legislator and alleged leader of the "Clean Sweep" gang accused of killing opponents in St. Marc. He is awaiting trial.
Oriel Jean, chief of palace security for Aristide from 2001 to 2003, was "intimately involved" with smuggling cocaine, according to four people who gave depositions. He is awaiting trial in Florida.
Armed rebels and members of the disbanded army that toppled Aristide in a 1991 coup launched a popular uprising on Feb. 5 from the northern city of Gonaives, spreading their revolt to the Aristide stronghold and nearby town of St. Marc.
After sporadic gun battles, police eventually regained control of St. Marc but in the days that followed, gangs attacked several presumed Aristide opponents. Dozens of houses were torched and several people were killed, including an Aristide opponent who was decapitated.
A complaint was filed in St. Marc against Privert, alleging that he ordered the gangs to quell the unrest by targeting suspected Aristide opponents.
Pierre Esperance, a human rights activist, said there were reports that more than 50 people were killed during mid-February in St. Marc. Reporters who were in the town at the time of the attacks reported seeing fewer than five bodies.
Last year, a former city employee in the Aristide stronghold and seaside slum of Cite Soleil fled Haiti after claiming Privert had ordered gangs to kill Aristide opponents in Port-au-Prince. Privert denied the allegations at the time. His arrest was days after Latortue's government announced it would block dozens of former Aristide officials from leaving the country, including former prime minister Yvon Neptune.