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Haiti ex-rebel leader cleared of murder

Human rights groups contend trial not fair

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A jury yesterday acquitted a leader of a paramilitary group blamed for killing some 3,000 people, 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 regime that followed, Chamblain led the paramilitary Front for the Advancement and Progress of the Haitian People, a group blamed for killing some 3,000 regime opponents from 1991 to 1994. Eight witnesses were called by the prosecution, but only one showed, and that witness 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.

The US Embassy said it was concerned with the acquittals but recognized the challenges faced by the interim government. ''We deeply regret the haste with which their cases were brought to retrial, resulting in procedural deficiencies that call into question the integrity of the process," said Adam Ereli, a deputy spokesman for the US State Department.

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

But Chamblain defended the outcome, telling the Associated Press at his jail near Port-au-Prince that ''it was a true trial, just and equitable."

The former army sergeant had returned from exile in the Dominican Republic this year to lead rebels in a three-week revolt that ended with Aristide's ouster Feb. 29. Chamblain, in several interviews with the AP from February to April, said he has 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.

Chamblain's codefendant -- Jackson Joanis, a former Port-au-Prince police chief -- was also acquitted. Joanis remains jailed on murder charges for a 1994 killing.

Chamblain remains jailed on charges he ordered the killings of several people in an Aristide stronghold in 1994.

In the late 1980s, Chamblain left the Haitian army and allegedly ran death squads aimed at terrorizing supporters of Aristide's Lavalas Family party.

When US troops came in 1994 to restore Aristide, Chamblain fled to the Dominican Republic. In 1995, he was convicted in absentia and given two life sentences for Izmery's 1993 killing and for the 1994 slaughter of Aristide supporters in the northern town of Gonaives, the city where February's rebellion began. Haitian law allows people judged in their absence another trial if they return.

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