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Haiti ex-rebel head cleared of murder

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A jury yesterday acquitted a leader of a paramilitary group accused of killing thousands, after a 14-hour murder trial that angered human rights groups and provoked criticism of the new US-backed government.

Louis-Jodel Chamblain was acquitted of the murder of Antoine Izmery, an importer who bankrolled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's presidential bid in 1990, the year before he was ousted in a coup. During the next regime, Chamblain led the paramilitary Front for the Advancement and Progress of the Haitian People, a group accused of killing some 3,000 regime opponents from 1991 to 1994.

"For the defense, this has been a great success," said Stanley Gaston, an attorney for Chamblain who returned from exile in the Dominican Republic to lead a band of rebels whose three-week revolt ended with Aristide's ouster on Feb. 29.

Of eight witnesses called by the prosecution, one showed, and said he knew nothing about the case, according to Viles Alizar of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. Two defense witnesses showed up but offered few details, he said.

"It is shameful, though not surprising, that this acquittal came without any apparent regard to fair trial standards," said Wende Gozan, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International in New York.

Chamblain, in several interviews with the Associated Press from February to April, said he never killed anyone.

Jury selection began late Monday morning, and journalists were told the day would likely be devoted to selecting a jury. But the trial began at 4 p.m. and stretched into the evening. A verdict was announced at 6 a.m. yesterday.

In the late 1980s, during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Chamblain left the Haitian army and allegedly ran death squads aimed at terrorizing supporters of Aristide's Lavalas Family party.

Haitian law allows people judged in their absence to another trial if they return.

After Chamblain's April surrender, Bernard Gousse, interim Justice Minister under the interim US-backed government, said Chamblain possibly could be pardoned "for his great services to the nation," noting what he had done to oust Aristide in February.

Human rights groups criticized Haiti's US-backed interim government for forming alliances with people like Chamblain while it arrests Aristide officials and supporters.

Elifaite Saint-Pierre, spokesman for the Platform of Human Rights Organizations, a coalition of nine Haitian groups, said the outcome was foreseeable. "This is what we predicted," he said. "Now it is the ex-military who make the law."

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