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Friday, 10 November, 2000, 20:32 GMT
Soldiers get life for Haiti massacre
Defendants appearing for trial
The defendants pleaded innocent to the charges
A court in Haiti has given life sentences to 12 former soldiers and paramilitaries for the massacre of at least six people in a seaside slum in 1994.

Four other defendants received prison terms of up to nine years and six were acquitted.

The trial revealed the role of the army high command in the massacre... it was the trial of the coup d'etat

Justice Minister Camille Leblanc
Starting on Monday another 38 people - including the exiled former military ruler Raoul Cedras - will be tried in absentia charged with masterminding the killings.

The massacre took place during a dawn raid on the shantytown of Raboteau, in the port of Gonaives, where soldiers and paramilitaries rounded up residents.

Some were tortured there and then, forced to lie in open sewers; others were shot as they tried to flee to the sea.

'Critical' trial

According to court documents, at least six people were murdered, but the exact figure is unknown because soldiers prevented families from retrieving the bodies.

Human rights lawyers say that anywhere between eight and 15 people died.

White House pictures of massacre victims
At least eight people were alleged to have been murdered
Correspondents say the fact that the trial is happening at all is unprecedented for Haiti's shaky justice system.

The Haitian Government has described the trial as critical to the country's emerging democracy.

Justice Minister Camille Leblanc said the process had revealed the role of the high command in the massacre.

"In this sense, it was the trial of the coup d'etat", she said.

Tried in absentia

Prosecutors say the massacre was part of a broad plan to crush opposition to Raoul Cedras' 1991 military coup.

Raoul Cedras
Raoul Cedras will be tried in absentia starting Monday
Mr Cedras - who lives in Panama - will now be tried in his absence. Requests for his extradition have been rejected.

The list of his co-defendants - also to be tried in absentia - includes everyone from low-ranked troops to Mr Cedras' co-leaders, Michel Francois, Philippe Biamby and Emmanuel Constant, who headed the civilian paramilitary movement known as the Fraph.

It is the first time members of the Haitian high command and paramilitary leaders have been tried for human rights violations committed during the 1991-1994 military regime.

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See also:

19 Oct 00 | Americas
Haiti government foils 'coup plot'
14 Jul 00 | Americas
Aid threat to Haiti
09 Jun 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Haitians yearn for stability
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